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Territorial Army (Chorley)

1.27 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): I would sooner not have had to have this debate, but unfortunately the strategic defence review meant that a debate on the Territorial Army centre at Chorley was necessary.

The centre was established in 1895 and is occupied by the headquarters of 101 Battalion, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. More important, if anything is more important, there are also the cadets, about whom I feel strongly. Both have a strong case to remain. On 17 November, my right hon. Friend George Robertson announced that the battalion headquarters would move to north Wales. Study of the map showed that it would move to Queensferry.

I was disappointed because that decision was unnecessary, unjustified and certainly not thought out. Two reviews in the past few months had said that Chorley TA centre should remain. It was in the right position and was the ideal location for 101 Battalion REME's HQ. What has changed? I can think of nothing. The M6 is still in the same place and the HQ is in the good repair that it always has been. All the people are still there. Suddenly, at the last minute, things changed.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I can help the hon. Gentleman, who almost certainly is not aware of the evidence taken by the Defence Committee this morning from Colonel Mike Taylor, chairman of the north-west Territorial Auxiliary and Volunteer Reserve Association. He told us that he and his colleagues did not understand the decision on Chorley, except as a deliberate political move to shift a perfectly fine TA centre from Chorley across a boundary into Wales for the sake of the footprint.

Mr. Hoyle: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that welcome information, of which I was unaware. It certainly concurs with my thinking on the matter and answers some of my questions. I am sure that the Minister will want to deal with that information in his reply. I could not work out the reasons for the decision; the evidence given today has revealed that it was reached for political ones. I am very worried about that, and hope that a correct decision will be made.

Everyone in Chorley was shocked by the decision to transfer the TA centre, which supports our community at sporting, charitable and ceremonial events. Those at the centre have always been there, on hand as a part of Chorley--that role represents an important aspect of the centre, and it is why I have asked for the debate.

The centre is such a key player in the local community that it gives every young person the opportunity to participate in disciplines and events out of school and to plan for the future. The cadet centre attracts young people and provides them with a golden opportunity. If we take away that opportunity, there may not be another one. I hope that the Minister will deal with our concerns. Regardless of how we study the Ministry's plan, it will result in the closure of the centre. Not only will the battalion headquarters go, but a fundamental part of society in Chorley--the cadet force--will go.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): Is my hon. Friend aware that I held a public consultation on the defence

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review in my constituency, at the Royal British Legion Lostock hall, which was attended by many TA and cadet group representatives? A common theme was the concern that, after any changes in the TA configuration, the position of cadet forces should be maintained. There was, and is, very real concern in Lancashire that changes to the TA could cause serious damage to the area's cadet forces. I seek reassurance from my hon. Friend the Minister--as does, I am sure, my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle)--that cadet forces, and certainly those in Chorley, will be maintained.

Mr. Hoyle: I know that my hon. Friend had a most successful meeting which was attended by many people. Although people were happy to attend a meeting to have a public discussion, they discovered that Chorley's cadet force, which they thought was safe, and its headquarters, which they believed would not be moved, would unfortunately not be the subject of good news from George Robertson--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but that was the second occasion on which he referred to the right hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Robertson) by his surname. He should refer to him by his constituency.

Mr. Hoyle: Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Our concern is so great that 50 hon. Members from the north-west have sent a letter to the Minister--which he should have received, as it was put on the Letter Board last night--to support the retention of Chorley's centre. We have the backing of parish councils. Last night, Chorley borough council discussed the issue and Lancashire county council, which is concerned about the issue, will also debate it soon. There is a wave of support across the north-west for maintaining the TA centre. We should not lose what we have or play around with it simply to appease north Wales. I am worried about that danger.

It is difficult to justify the Ministry's decision. I have tried to imagine every possible reason for it but have been unable to find one. The decision was not taken for financial or logistical reasons. It does not add up, so what is the reason for it?

The new south Lancashire catchment area, which covers three constituencies, is home to much engineering and 300,000 people. We will not, however, have one TA centre or cadet centre. That news is unacceptable and is not good. The north-west is an important area and the region's population is bigger than that of north Wales, which already has five TA centres. Why on earth are we making the change? It does not make sense.

When I was mayor, I went along to the 101 Battalion REME headquarters, with which I have always had good links, where I was told that the TA has always had problems in recruiting officers for its establishments in north Wales. Now, we are told that the battalion headquarters will be moved to north Wales--but from where will the people come to man it? What will be the cost? It does not add up.

The Chorley centre has eight full-time civil servants. They will not be transferred to Queensferry because it is simply not possible to do so--they will go on to the unemployment register. Eight people's jobs will be

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thrown away at a whim, but it will cost us--not only in redundancy money but in recruitment in north Wales. The decision does not add up.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Although I do not want to comment specifically on Chorley, there is a wider point to consider--whether the defence review took into consideration an area's recruitment potential. Such considerations certainly seem to have been ignored in my constituency, which is the best recruiting area in Gloucestershire. Would my hon. Friend care to comment on that?

Mr. Hoyle: I do not think that the matter has been considered. I can honestly say that the decision on Chorley was taken so late that nothing could have been properly considered. I am not as familiar with the situation in Stroud, but I presume that the same questions may be asked about the decisions that affect it. I hope that the Minister will also consider the circumstances there. Why change a fine recruitment area, staffed by local people, unless there are genuine reasons for doing so?

The decision on Chorley's centre was not taken because we do not need that centre--it would be different if that were the reason for that decision. Someone has, however, decided to move it to north Wales. Let us not lose sight of that fact. The civil servants at our centre are not the same as the people who go out on the TA weekends, or the Regulars who might expect to be moved. They are people with real jobs and livelihoods who will suddenly lose them.

What will happen when the centre is moved to Queensferry? Last weekend, I decided to take a little trip to north Wales, and just happened to go past the TA centre. Has someone examined and measured the facilities at Chorley and at Queensferry to see what will fit? Nothing will fit at Queensferry as well as it has done at Chorley. North Wales will also be home to two other units and an Army cadet force detachment, all of which will have to be based in one building which was built to house one infantry company. It does not seem possible to make that work.

Unless the building in north Wales is the Tardis--it did not seem to be when I saw it--or we spend money to extend it, where will the headquarters go once we discover that the building is too small to house it? It could go back to Chorley. That would make sense, although it would have been more sensible for it simply to remain there. We could consider Wrexham, but the argument for moving to Queensferry has therefore been weakened.

I should think that by now we have enough evidence to say that the move should not be made, and that the decision should be reviewed by Land Command, which made it. I have been assured that the decision was made by Land Command and not by the Minister, and that it was not reached in the final throes of the review. I am worried, however, that that was when the decision was made; that the centre will not fit in north Wales and that it will cost a great deal to relocate it again.

We must consider also other factors. The Chorley centre houses the computer bank, wiring and transport facilities, all of which will have to be moved. Why are we making the move? There will be no gain in it; it will only cost more money. I thought that the idea of the strategic defence review was to make savings and increase efficiency. We cannot become more efficient in north Wales.

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The problem with the 101 Battalion REME is that it covers the area between Coventry and Scotland. We should realise that there is no better place for its centre than in the centre of the country. The midpoint between Coventry and Scotland is Chorley, just up the M6.


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