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22 Oct 2002 : Column 47WH—continued

West Freugh Airfield

12.30 pm

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): Thank you for your introduction of the debate, Mr. Griffiths. I congratulate you on your pronunciation.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to debate the twin announcements made in March and July that have caused such despair and dismay in my constituency. The Government's review of evaluation and research requirements was announced by a planted parliamentary question on 24 July, with the result that public and parliamentary scrutiny of the decision has had to wait almost exactly three months. That is surely not acceptable. If ever there was an advertisement for modernisation proposals to include a resumption of parliamentary business during September, this is it. Communities that have served the Ministry of Defence and related bodies impeccably for more than 60 years deserve better than such cynical politics, seeking a carpet under which to sweep bad news.

The announcement in the House was followed by a degree of buck passing between QinetiQ representatives and the MOD over the origins of the review. I hope that the Minister can throw more light on the nature of the examination of test and evaluation facilities.

To say that the announcement on 24 July caused dismay in Galloway is no exaggeration. I want the Minister to be fully aware of the strength of public opinion in this remote corner of Scotland. The area has been extremely supportive of MOD testing and operations since the 1930s. I was amused and confused to hear the Minister say in this very Chamber only one week ago that if he were starting from scratch he would not be designating a range at Shoeburyness. That was the result of a number of complaints received from locals about military activity. It is truly extraordinary that, so soon after, we face the closure of facilities in a place, Wigtownshire, that the MOD, if it did start with a blank sheet of paper, would surely deduce was an excellent location for such a testing range.

Stranraer and its surrounding communities have been dealt some cruel blows in recent months. Last year's foot and mouth crisis left the area severely weakened through agricultural decline and the sudden fall in tourism, as Dumfries and Galloway bore the brunt of Scotland's battle with the disease. In an area with few significant employers, this year has been similarly devastating. Stena Line ferries, Grasshopper and Aprilia have all announced significant job losses. For those in employment, Wigtownshire is one of the three or four areas in the UK with the lowest average wage level. Through all that, West Freugh has been regarded as a centre of significant employment, mitigating our huge dependence on the continued ferry traffic with Northern Ireland.

It would be helpful to examine the review process that has resulted in the announcements. I understand that the Government gave QinetiQ what it described, in discussions with me, as "stringent cost-saving targets", which have resulted in job losses at West Freugh and other UK sites. However, when did that process start, and what local involvement in decision making was

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there? I understand that there was almost no local input into the review, with the result that West Freugh was a major loser in the proposals put to the Government by QinetiQ.

That cost-saving process now sees the creation of a roving skills base, making use of various range facilities throughout the UK. Members of QinetiQ staff based elsewhere will be brought in to run exercises at West Freugh on an as-and-when basis. There seems to have been no assessment of the potential for staff resident in Wigtownshire to fill that roving role. Can the Minister justify the decision to exclude the West Freugh staff from that opportunity? A strong perception remains that West Freugh has been a punch-bag for this announcement—an easy target. Let me reassure QinetiQ and the MOD that we will certainly not take the decision quietly.

It is fair to say, however, that the announcements of the closure of the airfield and the rundown of the range were not entirely unexpected. Many, including me in parliamentary debate with the Minister, had predicted that action would be required to halt the decline. The airfield closure announcement was made in March, as the MOD claimed that Civil Aviation Authority regulations had insisted that insufficient flights were being handled for air traffic controllers to maintain a safe flying environment. In parliamentary answers last year, I learned that air traffic movements had declined from more than 11,000 in 1997 to fewer than 4,000 in 2001. Military movements have played a significant part in that decline, falling by than more than 40 per cent. in the three years since 1999. There remains a deep suspicion at the airfield that the decline in numbers is more attributable to internal accounting procedures between QinetiQ and the MOD than to any lack of demand.

Surely one of the effects of externalising some airfields is that landing for refuelling, say, at West Freugh is a more costly process for the RAF than landing at one of their own bases. What had caused the reduction in RAF traffic? Where is the traffic going? We live in dangerous times, as the Minister will appreciate. We put a premium on RAF expertise. The evaporation of RAF demand for West Freugh, without an instruction to favour other airfields, is inexplicable. If there has been such an instruction, perhaps word has not yet got through. I understand that there are still daily telephone calls to the airfield from the crew of RAF jets seeking permission to land.

I visited Campbeltown on parliamentary duties this month and was fascinated by the contrast between the seeming sustainability of the airfield RAF Machrihanish and West Freugh. Will the Minister explain why one airfield remains viable on air traffic grounds, although the other, apparently, does not?

Exactly what incentives are made available to private sector operators of MOD assets to develop new income streams? That is a key point. Can the Minister confirm that the MOD allows only 10 per cent. of the first year's income to be retained by the operator? Surely that is a guarantee that little or no effort will go into developing new ideas and markets. If we are to empower agencies and the private sector to create added value, it has to be in their interests to do so. To date, their interest has been, I am afraid to say, half-hearted to say the least.

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The employment and redundancy terms that are being offered to those expected to leave West Freugh are one of the major items that require the personal intervention of the Minister. I remind him of the exceptional service that has been given by the work force at the airfield and the range. That service and dedication to duty runs the risk of being tarnished by heavy-handed and iniquitous treatment by employers.

Angus Robertson (Moray): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Duncan : I will give way briefly.

Angus Robertson : I intend to ask only a short question. Will the hon. Gentleman concede that had the facility not been effectively privatised by the Conservatives, workers would not be facing the iniquitous two-tier redundancy package that seems likely at West Freugh?

Mr. Duncan : One reason I was reluctant to give way, and wanted to give way briefly, is that, ironically, under the Scottish National party's defence policy there would be no evaluation or research.

The iniquitous treatment of workers at West Freugh, which follows their service and dedication to duty, requires ministerial attention. Many of the employees have worked at the base for many years. They have endured several changes to their working conditions and terms of employment, as successive Governments have changed the balance of out-sourced and in-sourced employment. Many of those now facing redundancy have been employed by the MOD, Serco and QinetiQ, although, in simple terms, they have always had the same job. I seek the direct intervention of the Minister to ensure that all the employees—whoever they have been employed by—receive a standard redundancy package.

It is unacceptable that a worker who was employed by the MOD in 1969 as an apprentice from school could face redundancy from his post as a technician with a package of £8,000, while a colleague at the same level could be offered £60,000. That difference could arise simply because the two workers had differing journeys through the privatisation maze. Surely even though the provisions of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 were predated by some of the changes that affected that loyal work force, the MOD must come forward with proposals to underwrite a common redundancy package for those who face an uncommonly bleak search for alternative employment. I seek an assurance that proposals will be forthcoming on that important point.

The closure announcement of 24 July referred to the downgrading of the range to campaign operation status. There has been much debate on the precise meaning of that term, particularly with regard to employment opportunities at the base. When we met the Minister in London on 7 August, I was keen to establish that the phrase did not mean that the site would be mothballed. The West Freugh range forms a significant part of the land area of that part of Wigtownshire. It is a valued resource and the MOD has regarded it as such for many years. It is also, however, valuable to the local community. Much of it is quality agricultural land;

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some of it is as well connected as any other area in Galloway. There is excellent potential for developing alternative employment, but that will be prevented if campaign operation status leads to the mothballing of the site. The mothballing of the site will not be deemed acceptable by the community if only 10 jobs are offered in potential recompense. I insist on an urgent, systematic and thoroughgoing appraisal of the estate at West Freugh in which a critical eye is cast over the assets that are no longer required for campaign operation status. Views are being sought from the armed forces on the continuing demand for the range for exercises.

We look to the Minister for leadership. The local communities will find it unacceptable to reserve the whole estate merely on the off chance that there will be a military requirement. If the Government are determined to press ahead with the downgrading of the site, with limited opportunities for significant employment—a policy that I deplore—there must be a presumption that the MOD will return assets to private ownership for development unless there is a pressing need for their retention. I understand that the Minister has experience of that kind of balance in respect of other ranges throughout the UK, but I ask him to insist on imagination and urgency from his Department.

After I expressed my fears that mothballing would constrain economic development, it was suggested that I was being overly dramatic, yet a memo from the Minister's office to mine, dated 3 September, explains "campaign status" as mothballing. Indeed, in this week's edition of the Stranraer and Wigtownshire Free Press—I am sure that the Minister has it on his desk across the road—QinetiQ's director of ranges talks openly of

The local enterprise company is desperately in need of development land and opportunities to market to inward investors. I ask the Minister to pull back from mothballing and to make a significant contribution to economic regeneration by releasing unneeded assets.

Over 60 years, Wigtownshire has earned the right to fair treatment by the MOD. The proposed downgrading of the site and retention of as few as 10 jobs will not be acceptable to the work force and the local communities. The Minister needs to think again.

12.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie) : I welcome the opportunity to debate the role of West Freugh airfield—and I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) pronounce it correctly, as I would expect. When I heard my officials talking about it, I thought that, like Kirkcudbright, it must have an odd pronunciation, of which, perhaps, I was unaware.

I shall do my best to respond to hon. Members' concerns about the role of West Freugh airfield and the adjacent Luce bay bombing range. Sadly, over the past three years I have had extensive experience of the downsizing of our range operations throughout the United Kingdom. I must say at the outset that it gives me no pleasure at all to have to deal with such situations involving rural areas that have loyally supported our activities—in this case, for several generations. At his

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request, I have already met the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, and at the end of September or beginning of October—I cannot remember the exact date—I had the opportunity to meet members of Dumfries and Galloway council and local trade unions.

West Freugh consists of the Torrs Warren area, the airfield with its surrounding agricultural land, and the Luce bay range. Torrs Warren covers some 5,900 acres in total and consists of about 2,600 acres of intertidal sand and mudflats, 3,000 acres of sand dunes and 300 acres of salt marsh. The whole of Torrs Warren is a site of special scientific interest. The airfield site covers about 650 acres. All but the 30 acres that are built on are covered by full agricultural tenancies.

There are two separate, but related, issues to address regarding West Freugh: the cessation of full-time operations at the airfield, and the campaigning of the bombing range.

Full-time operation of the airfield ceased in March as a direct consequence of the dwindling numbers of aircraft movements. They have declined on a steadily steepening curve over a five-year period. The number of aircraft movements, particularly fast jets, eventually reduced to levels below the safety minima set by the MOD regulatory authorities to keep air traffic controllers up to date with current practice. The statistics speak for themselves. The total number of air traffic movements handled at West Freugh reduced from 11,644 in 1997 to 3,861 in 2001. It was therefore decided to cease full-time operations and to put the airfield into care and maintenance for reactivation for limited periods as and when required. That decision means that the airfield is now closed for routine operations.

Mr. Duncan : What assessment has the Minister made of the reason for that decline? There was a substantial reduction in civil movements when the British Airways flying school moved, but there has also been a decline in military movements. Why is that?

Dr. Moonie : It is quite simple. There is a general reduction in requirement for the type of operations that we have been carrying out at West Freugh. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is nothing sinister about the reduction. It is merely a reflection of the way in which we do our business nowadays. Sadly, some areas of that business may contract as others may expand. There has been a contraction in the requirement for that type of work. When we are testing certain weapons, for example, eventually the weapon is accepted into service, and further testing is no longer needed, or only minimal testing is needed. The overall volume of work will contract over time.

The site will continue to be used for military exercises on a regular basis and will remain available for urgent operational requirements. Those activities will be supported using RAF or QinetiQ assets and manpower, including military air traffic controllers, who will be temporarily relocated to the site from other locations.

There have been rumours in the West Freugh area that the decision to cease full-time operations was taken as an expedient to avoid the projected maintenance costs

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of resurfacing the runway and replacing or upgrading other airfield facilities to meet current standards. That was not the case.

On the campaigning of the bombing range, I announced on 24 July that as part of QinetiQ's rationalisation proposals for the air sector of the test and evaluation ranges, the West Freugh range is to be reduced to operate on a campaign basis from April 2003. I made the announcement as soon as I came to a considered view on the QinetiQ proposals, which were put to me by officials. I fully accept that the timing of the announcement—falling on the last sitting day before the summer recess—was not ideal. In the circumstances, however, it was the right thing to do. Had I delayed an announcement until the House resumed, it would have needlessly prolonged the uncertainty of the West Freugh employees who were well aware that something was afoot. Alternatively, if I had made the announcement while the House was in recess, I could have been accused of discourtesy to the House.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): The Minister will be aware that QinetiQ has actually stated that trade unions could not be consulted until after that ministerial announcement. Is he able to confirm that such a protocol exists, and prevented early notification to the unions? After the meeting with local councillors, three Labour councillors from Stranraer contacted me to ask whether there was any further news for them on the points that they raised. Is the MOD committed to any further financial support for West Freugh, if the Secretary of State for Scotland and the First Minister of the Scottish Executive offer support, in whatever form that may come?

Dr. Moonie : I shall reply to the essential point about jobs retained, and what we are trying to do, as part of my speech. Consultation is now the subject of an employment tribunal, and unfortunately I cannot, therefore, give any comment today, but I will keep hon. Members informed, as I will inform them of any progress in the matter.

The West Freugh range is primarily a bombing range that supports development and in-service trials of weapons systems and their platforms. It also supports short-range missile firings, gun and rocket firings, explosive tests and other weapons systems trials and service exercises. The projected work load on the West Freugh range is mainly in support of two Ministry of Defence programmes, the BL755 trial and the batch acceptance testing of the high-velocity missile.

We accept that work on the HVM programme may last until 2014, generating up to 50 days a year of range activity including work-up and clear-up tasks. The BL755 trials work requires a further 12.5 days of activity per year on the range, again including work-up and clean tasks. There is also potential for a small number of one-off trials tasks that may be suitable for campaigning. QinetiQ's planning is therefore proceeding on the basis of an average annual requirement of some 65 to 70 days of range utilisation per year.

We also expect the site to host about three military exercises per year. Those, while making use of the estate and several buildings on site, will not make use of the

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range infrastructure, and will require only a modest input from QinetiQ through the provision of health, safety and environmental oversight, together with some logistical assistance.

Mr. Duncan : I am grateful for the Minister's indulgence in giving way to me again. He cites the figure of 65 to 70 days of operations on the site. He will appreciate the concerns about outside labour undertaking work on the site that was previously done by Wigtownshire staff, so can he confirm how the 70-day figure compares with the ongoing situation? To what degree is it part of a rundown, or is it just a small decline, but a significant change in the sourcing of staff?

Dr. Moonie : I shall answer that question later in my speech, and the hon. Gentleman is welcome to ask it again if I do not answer it satisfactorily.

There is no question of QinetiQ running down operations at the site prior to submitting rationalisation proposals. Over the years, significant reductions have occurred in the work load at ranges that support the air programme, particularly at West Freugh. The same applies in Wales, where I have been faced with the same type of problem, as the hon. Member for Caernarfon, who is here today, knows—

Mr. Win Griffiths (in the Chair): Order. I think that the Minister means the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd).

Dr. Moonie : Thank you, Mr. Griffiths. I am glad to have a Welshman in the Chair to help me in my embarrassing lack of memory.

QinetiQ's proposals have been based on an extensive review of the facilities that it operates on behalf of the MOD. The review confirms that the MOD owns a large number of diverse sites and capabilities, but that substantial surplus exists in the testing and evaluation environment. The MOD still needs the West Freugh range for large-scale and specialist training exercises, but those activities can, and economically should, be supported on a more ad hoc basis than has been required in the past.

It would be easy for me to reply to an Adjournment debate such as this by saying that I shall do everything I can to bring as much MOD work as possible to the range under discussion. Much though I should like to be able to say that, I have to recognise that if I did, it would have the opposite, negative effect on other remote ranges. I am therefore caught between a rock and hard place. Requirements change, and who can say what the requirements will be 10 years down the road? Who can say, indeed, what the requirements would be if the Scottish National party were to win control of Scotland? I suspect that they would be considerably less than the 70 days that I have talked about. [Interruption.] I was being ironic.

We still need the range for our requirements, although at a reduced level. The decision to reduce the operation of the range to campaign status is expected to save £28 million in the first five years, with a reduction in annual running costs of some £5.9 million thereafter. Those figures compare with the significant financial loss that the range has been accruing over recent years. Last year,

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the full cost to QinetiQ of the range and the airfield was £7.4 million. The total value of charges recovered from customers was £2.1 million. Facilities therefore made a loss of some £5.3 million in a single year, and future income predictions showed that that position would continue to worsen, and would in fact be compounded by costs incurred through site and airfield maintenance programmes. The position was therefore unsustainable.

QinetiQ is conducting a consultation exercise to determine exactly how many full-time jobs will need to be retained at the site to support campaign operations. We expect the number to be about 10, but it could be as many as 15. We are having discussions about that.

We are sensitive to the local impact of calling in staff from other locations for campaigns. Therefore, QinetiQ is examining the possibility of issuing call-in contracts for local people to be employed as and when required. I am sorry to say that it is just not viable to retain more permanent staff at West Freugh, because there simply is not enough work to employ them all full-time.

Equally, as I have said, it is not viable to consider the wholesale relocation of additional capabilities to West Freugh. The transfer costs would be significant and would bear down on other ranges. In the end, the taxpayer would be the loser. It would also be wholly inappropriate when suitable trial facilities already exist elsewhere.

I assure hon. Members that the decisions affecting West Freugh have not been taken lightly, and that I have carefully considered what the MOD can do to minimise the impact on QinetiQ staff and on the region in general. Shortly after the announcement, I asked officials from Defence Estates and the Defence Diversification Agency to meet senior QinetiQ staff, local MPs, MSPs, trade unions, local councillors and Dumfries and Galloway Enterprise in an effort to identify the potential for exploiting alternative commercial activity at the site. As a result of the meeting, Defence Estates is examining the effects of campaigning the site on the possible alternatives for use of the property, and I expect to receive its findings shortly. In the meantime, the MOD is considering the detailed operational plot of the site to determine which property or land assets can be sold off for possible public use or diversification.

Angus Robertson : Does the Minister not concede the clear injustice of a two-tier redundancy package? Does not he also concede that the so-called downsizing is the latest rundown, effectively, of the total number of MOD and defence-related staff in Scotland under a UK Government?

Dr. Moonie : There are constant changes in MOD staffing. For example, we are planning to relocate a regiment to Scotland under our plans for the Department's footprint. Job requirements change all the time. One thing that I can say with absolute certainty is that the number of MOD-inspired jobs in Scotland, including those associated with the 60 fast jets based in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, is considerably greater than it would be were the country ever to become independent.

Under the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency—the MOD agency that preceded QinetiQ—significant investment was made in the hope of bringing

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other activities to the site. Several opportunities were pursued, including a high-speed rail test track, aviation explosives training and vehicle storing. Sadly, they all proved unsuccessful. DERA incentivised its support contract with Serco to encourage Serco to generate commercial income. Unfortunately, only a few tens of thousands of pounds per annum were ever raised. I appreciate that such sums may seem substantial in isolation, but they are only a small fraction of the cost of maintaining the site and are certainly not on the scale required to reinvigorate the area.

The staff who are being made redundant at West Freugh fall into two main groups: those who were brought into QinetiQ from DERA in July 2001 and staff more recently in-sourced from Serco as part of an overall programme to reduce QinetiQ's dependence on third parties for core activities. The issue causing concern to some is that the staff who joined QinetiQ from DERA will receive substantially better terms than the ex-Serco employees.

The terms and conditions of employment, including redundancy terms and conditions, of all site staff were transferred under Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 arrangements. That said, a range of conditions and entitlements will result in differing redundancy payments, according to the previous employment history of the affected staff.

The redundancy payments that will accrue to staff in-sourced from Serco are, however, greater than those due to the much smaller number of QinetiQ employees who joined the company after vesting. QinetiQ is acutely aware of the sometimes significant differences in redundancy benefit that that gives rise to, despite the fact that most of the former Serco staff can expect to receive a redundancy payment significantly above the statutory requirement.

It is imperative that we view the rationalisation plans in the correct context. The testing and evaluation environment is badly in need of radical restructuring if we are to ensure that it meets the MOD's current and future requirements. Furthermore, the MOD cannot be seen to be profligate with taxpayers' money, and we are bound by the regulations that govern us. Having said that, I shall look with others at any possible means of alleviating what, sadly, has to be done in that area, including how we transfer land or buildings to another enterprise.

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