Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Gerald Howarth: My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex, to whom I report, has made his position and that of our party absolutely clear.

Mr. Caplin: The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex is not known for clarity, and he certainly was not clear earlier today.

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend is known for claret.

Mr. Caplin: I shall certainly not undermine that comment.

My party has no such qualms on these matters. We have addressed the shortcomings of current compensation and pension arrangements for all service personnel, regardless of those issues.

The hon. Members for Aldershot and for Mid-Sussex also raised a point about legal challenge. The criteria that we will use, contained in the annexe to the memorandum of the Select Committee, are exactly the same as those in other similar public sector pension schemes, such as the civil service scheme, so we do not anticipate that they will be subject to legal challenge.

I can confirm to the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall, on behalf of the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), who asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the number of awards that we have made to unmarried partners since the policy was introduced last March, that we have already made awards to six partners, using the criteria that I set out to the Select Committee.

Sir John Butterfill: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Caplin: I am afraid that I shall have to get on, as I have very little time. Several points have been made about consultation, and I have a leaflet here that was sent to all members of our armed forces during the Bill's initial stages. There will be immediate further communication through their payslips, which I am sure will attract their attention.

Briefly, I want to address the issue of cost neutrality, which was raised by all hon. Members who contributed to the debate. The new pension scheme is broadly cost-neutral compared with the current scheme, taking into account the effects of improved longevity. The savings produced by the replacement of the immediate pension with the early departure plan and the slippage of the deferred pension to age 65 have been used to improve dependants' benefits and to extend them to unmarried partners. We cannot do just one part of that equation, however.

An independent review of the scheme shows that it is good and, in key areas, at the top compared with comparator schemes elsewhere in the economy. The

22 Jan 2004 : Column 1555

Watson Wyatt report says in its executive summary that in most respects, the new armed forces pension scheme is relatively generous when compared with the benefits currently offered by both private and public sector pension arrangements. The value of the scheme in total was therefore considered to be well in line with that of comparator schemes elsewhere in the economy, and Watson Wyatt found that the scheme, which met the manning needs of our forces, could be delivered successfully on a broadly cost-neutral basis.

A number of Members have raised the issue of the early departure plan. It is designed to respond to the Government's move not to allow the payment of pension benefits before the age of 55, which means that the immediate pension currently in play could not be a feature of the new scheme. By devising a system of compensation payments that sits outside the pension scheme, we are providing a valuable and unique benefit, which should ensure that the required manning profile of the armed forces is maintained, while also providing a cushion to a second career for those leaving in mid-career. The armed forces rely on a fit, young work force, but there is also a need to pull a proportion of that work force through to the age of 40 and beyond to meet requirements. That pull is currently provided by the payment of a lump sum and an income stream for those reaching the immediate pension point. The chiefs of staff and the chain of command are confident that the early departure payment scheme should meet that need in the future. A key reason for that is that we are satisfied that with better transferable skills and a healthier population than when the current scheme was introduced in 1973, we do not need to provide the same level of payments for those leaving in mid-career as we do at present.

I want to thank hon. Members who have contributed to this afternoon's debate, particularly the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West, who is an expert on pension affairs. On some of the detailed points, I propose to write to hon. Members to give them their answer, prior to the commencement of the Committee stage of the Bill the week after next.

The packages on pensions and compensation that we have debated today represent modern, relevant and first-class benefits for service personnel and their families. They dispense with much that is outdated, old-fashioned or plain wrong, and they acknowledge the social and financial realities of 21st-century Britain. In purely financial terms, the significant improvement in dependants' benefits has rightly been welcomed on both sides of the House. We recognise the need to retain a high-quality scheme as an attractive recruitment and retention tool, and because we know that it is no less than our armed forces deserve.

Our values of social justice, fairness and equality are at the centre of this Bill—fairness to all who join our armed forces, fairness to those currently serving who want to choose to transfer to the new pension scheme, fairness to those who become ill or disabled, and fairness to partners, including same-sex partners, in the benefits that we provide. The Bill proposes new schemes that truly reflect the society in which we live and this Government's excellent equality agenda and policies, which have been consistently opposed by the Conservative party—even this afternoon, sadly. The Bill places our core values of social justice at the heart of

22 Jan 2004 : Column 1556

what we do for our armed forces, now and in the future. They deserve that and no less. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Orders [28 June 2001 and 6 November 2003],

Question agreed to.


Queen's recommendation having been signified—

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52 (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills),

Question agreed to.


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With the leave of the House, I shall put together the motions relating to delegated legislation.

Education Finance


22 Jan 2004 : Column 1557



22 Jan 2004 : Column 1558

RAF Boulmer

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Heppell.]

6 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): We move from one subject of crucial importance to servicemen and women and their families to another that is crucial to service families in Northumberland and to the whole community there. I refer to the future of RAF Boulmer.

RAF Boulmer has been part of the life of Northumberland, much cherished and supported by the local community for 50 years. It began even earlier as a wartime dummy airfield providing a decoy for RAF Acklington in my constituency—long since closed, but still warmly remembered. Boulmer, on the other hand, grew to be a very significant station and now has a fourfold mission: maintaining a core air defence capacity; supporting a deployable air command and control system; providing a school of fighter control training; and continuing the search and rescue activities of 202 Squadron.

Those tasks, which everyone acknowledges are carried out to the highest standards, involve more than 600 RAF personnel and nearly 200 civilians, generating about £20 million a year in income to the local economy. The station has massive support from the local community and many of its personnel devote their time to community, sporting, youth and voluntary organisations in the area. The possibility of the base closing was thus greeted with dismay when it emerged as one of the potential outcomes of the future basing study that is being carried out as part of the strategic defence review. That has been unsettling for service families and the local community, a fact that the Secretary of State acknowledged when he replied to me in the defence debate on 11 September last year.

The final proposals emerging from the review, dealing with four RAF stations with support roles, will soon land on the Minister's desk. I appreciate that at this stage he cannot anticipate decisions or give assurances about a report that he has not yet considered, but now is the moment to make sure that he understands why any outcome involving closure of RAF Boulmer would be a dreadful and very expensive mistake that would also have disastrous consequences for the local economy in Northumberland.

Two of the options presented in the review would close RAF Boulmer by 2012. Each would require very heavy capital expenditure to re-provide Boulmer's facilities elsewhere for no measurable gain in operating efficiency or revenue expenditure. That has to be bad news for any Secretary of State for Defence who is trying to ensure that money is used efficiently to equip and support our forces, and is not wasted. The investment that would have to be re-provided includes nearly £5 million-worth of recent investment, currently being completed in the fighter control school and the control and reporting centre.

Clearly, the first priority has to be the RAF's operational requirements. Only if they can continue to be met effectively at a given site can the benefits to the local economy of staying there become a factor to be

22 Jan 2004 : Column 1559

considered; but there is absolutely no doubt that RAF Boulmer can fulfil its mission effectively at its present location.

I shall examine the various aspects in turn—first, the helicopters of 202 search and rescue Squadron. They are the well known public face of the RAF in the region— and rightly so, because of the exceptionally courageous and dedicated rescue work that they do, as well as their particularly close links with the community. They can regularly be seen at community events throughout the area, but are just as frequently to be seen flying on crucial rescue missions over sea and land. I recently had the privilege of presenting the Queen's commendation for bravery to a crew member for his amazing work in a rescue in appalling sea conditions at Amble. Those men are heroes to the local and seafaring communities.

It seems clear that, whatever else happens, the search and rescue operation will need to remain at Boulmer for the foreseeable future. Its location is dictated by the operating range of the Sea King helicopters, which need to be where they are to cover the area for which they are responsible. Until the Sea Kings are replaced—and I am not sure that a replacement is even on the drawing board—there will have to be a station at Boulmer with basic services, though it would be a very small station, if that were all it had. It therefore makes sense to continue to locate other activities there if that can be done efficiently.

That brings me to the traditional function of the station—air defence in the form of the command-and-control system. That does not have the high profile that it did in the cold war, but it is still essential to the protection of our citizens. That, and the suitability of the Boulmer site for it, have just been recognised by the investment of £1.5 million in upgrading the bunker from which it operates. Despite this investment, the basing study canvasses the idea that we should move away from fixed bunkers to above-ground facilities. "Get away from the bunker environment" is the phrase that it uses. It is difficult to see any significant advantage in that, and there is a further disadvantage. Given the known threat of terrorist attack, the bunker is far easier to defend and far more capable of withstanding attack than any above-ground or mobile facility.

The further argument for moving the control and reporting centre to a flying station is to increase informal contact between controllers and air crew. That can be achieved in other ways and it is, at best, only a marginal benefit to be set against very large costs. Moreover, the Minister will be aware that No. 1 Air Control Centre—a deployable facility that is housed at RAF Boulmer—performed magnificently in Iraq without the need for any prior co-location with a flying base. By its mobile nature, it could obviously be housed on another station and might have the advantage of being closer to its departure airfield or port, but location was clearly not a problem in effective deployment in Iraq. In the time scale required for the kind of operation for which it would be needed, there would be ample time to move the facility to its embarkation point.

The largest recent investment at RAF Boulmer is the extension of the fighter control school where £3.3 million is being spent. It is obviously sensible to co-locate that with the control and reporting centre. To move the whole thing lock, stock and barrel to RAF Scampton, which has been closed for 10 years, would

22 Jan 2004 : Column 1560

mean spending not only another £3 million but millions more. It is not only capital costs that are involved. I see no prospect of savings on current expenditure from such a move, especially when one takes into account the fact that RAF Boulmer has been relatively successful among larger bases in achieving low maintenance costs as a proportion of total site budget.

In my discussions with the review team, it was pointed out that £6 million of capital expenditure for new single airmen's accommodation would be needed if Boulmer remained in use. However, when I pressed the team, it admitted that a similar amount would have to be spent for the same purpose at any other station to which Boulmer's activities were moved. It is in no way a factor in the argument either way, and I hope that the Minister will note that.

The removal of RAF Boulmer's activities would be a massively expensive and hugely wasteful commitment of scarce resources for a minimal—not even measurable—operational benefit, and perhaps no benefit at all. It would be entirely contrary to Ministers' declared objective of achieving value for money; it would be in conflict with the Secretary of State's declared views about the importance of the defence footprint needing to be present in different parts of the United Kingdom; and it would be in conflict with Government regeneration policies for the north-east. It is impossible to think of regeneration measures that would be adequate to fill the gap left if RAF Boulmer closed. Indeed, if there were such policies, I presume that the Government would already be pursuing them to deal with the existing weaknesses of the economy in Northumberland.

Northumberland county council commissioned a study from the centre for urban and regional development studies at the university of Newcastle upon Tyne. I hope the Minister will give me an assurance that he will study its conclusions carefully when he considers the review proposals. If he has not got a copy, I have a spare one with me that I can easily let him have. The study points out that RAF Boulmer is easily the largest single employer in the Alnwick and Amble travel-to-work area. If RAF Boulmer were to close, it would cause severe and sustained damage to what the study calls a relatively isolated, small and fragile local economy. The results that it identifies from closure include the loss of 800 jobs, including 184 civilian posts; the loss of £18 million of local income in salaries; the loss of a £1 million a year maintenance budget of which the overwhelming majority is thought to be locally spent; and the loss of £500,000 capital expenditure each year, of which a significant proportion is spent on the wages of locally based construction workers. It would also shrink the local economy with the loss of an estimated 195 further jobs. The scale of the potential job loss would be equivalent to 10 per cent. of all jobs in the local travel-to-work area.

The study describes the site as being in a relatively isolated, low-productivity and low-wage area of Northumberland—itself a peripheral county with an exceptionally weak economy and low levels of wealth generation. Those facts are well known to the Government Departments involved in regeneration work in the area and, I hope, to the Ministry of Defence as well.

22 Jan 2004 : Column 1561

The travel-to-work area also has comparatively high levels of employment in agriculture and tourism, as well as being dependent on RAF employment. Many of the vacancies in the local economy are part-time, short term or seasonal. As a result, the ability of the wider local economy to absorb job losses is exceptionally weak. Disposing of the site for a civilian purpose would be most unlikely to create anything like the number of jobs that would be lost.

Closure could have other significant negative effects on the community of Longhoughton and the wider district. They include a likely reduction in the population—particularly of full-time resident families, with family homes likely to be occupied by smaller households; the closure of local shops, personal services and other affected businesses; the closure of social, community and welfare services associated with the base—including potentially the health centre, sports hall, squash courts, community centre and crèche; and a threat to the future viability of the village school at Longhoughton, which draws 75 per cent. of its pupils from base families.

I had the pleasure recently of opening a nursery facility alongside the school at Longhoughton, which is much used by RAF and local families. Its viability depends on the shared involvement of the RAF in the local community. There would be a reduction in demand for local services in the surrounding area, including the town of Alnwick.

We all recognise that the Minister's first consideration must be the operational effectiveness of the RAF but there is no question but that that can be fully maintained by keeping RAF Boulmer and that little or no operational benefit could be gained from moving and re-providing its facilities elsewhere. The Minister must also consider value for money. The best value for money would be to gain from the investment already made at Boulmer, rather than throwing it away to repeat it elsewhere. It would certainly not be joined-up government to land other Departments, regional bodies and local authorities with a crisis to which they have no available solution by taking hundreds of jobs and £20 million of income out of the local economy.

The case is clear. I hope that Ministers and senior officials are now fully aware of it. I do not expect the Minister to make judgments tonight about a study that he is supposed to be approaching with an open mind but it would be helpful if he could indicate how long the process is expected to take and when we are likely to get a result in order to remove the anxieties felt in both the RAF and the local community. It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate that he will keep the factors that I have described in mind and that he fully appreciates the value of RAF Boulmer, its effectiveness and the value-for-money aspects of the case that I have put.

Next Section

IndexHome Page