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6.13 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on securing this debate on an issue of great importance to him and his constituents. I am grateful for the opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the personnel of RAF Boulmer. I

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notice that the right hon. Gentleman pronounced it "Boomer". I understand that in other parts of the region it is pronounced "Bulmer" but I will use the right hon. Gentleman's pronunciation.

Mr. Beith: My experience is that throughout the RAF it is known as RAF "Bulmer" but throughout the local community it is known as RAF "Boomer". That is the only difference I am conscious of between the RAF and the local community.

Mr. Ingram: I am not going to pursue the matter but, in the spirit of accommodating the right hon. Gentleman as far as I can this evening, I shall use the pronunciation that he recommends. However, I am pleased to have the opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the personnel at the station, and at the other air surveillance and control system units. The ASACS community plays a vital role in the air defence of the UK and in the control of our aircraft on operations, but this role is not perhaps recognised as often as it might be.

As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed pointed out, RAF Boulmer, with a strength of some 600 service personnel and nearly 200 civilians, hosts a number of units. First, it is the home of the school of fighter control, where all RAF fighter controllers learn their craft. The school runs more than 40 different courses and, on average, trains some 850 students each year.

Secondly, the station is the garrison home of No. 1 Air Control Centre, which stands ready to deploy, at short notice, anywhere in the world. No. 1 ACC is currently in the process of withdrawing from Iraq. It has spent eight strenuous but highly successful months policing the airspace over Iraq and providing an air traffic control service for the area. I welcome this opportunity to pay tribute to the professionalism and dedication of its men and women.

RAF Boulmer is also base to A flight of 202 Squadron, which has been based at the station since 1978. The flight performs a vital search-and-rescue role that I know is greatly valued in the local area. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned the importance of that function. Last year, the unit was involved in the rescue of 194 people. Already this year, a further seven people have been rescued.

In May 2000, my predecessor as Minister for the Armed Forces, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), announced that Boulmer, along with RAF Neatishead, would become one of two control and reporting centres. Their role is to maintain a 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a-year watch on UK airspace.

As a consequence of this decision, RAF Buchan will draw down to a remote radar head, starting in November this year. This change was brought about by greatly improved technology that means that we no longer need three centres to protect UK airspace. As part of that process, RAF Boulmer is currently being updated to this new standard. The station is expected to become operational using the new equipment by around the middle of this year.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the MOD could be accused of wasting money by installing new equipment in RAF Boulmer, even though it might be closed. It is important to point out that the new

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equipment is essential to maintaining the station's current operational capability until the enhanced NATO air command and control system is available. The timetable for that has been delayed, and we need to install new equipment in the meantime to ensure operational effectiveness. The aim of the update is to maintain operational capability for the next five or six years. If Boulmer is to be closed, it will not happen until after the end of that period.

However, time—and technology—moves on. As the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, my Department keeps its requirements under constant review, in order to ensure that we operate in the most efficient and effective way possible, both operationally and financially. The House will recall, for example, the strategic review of RAF Brize Norton, RAF Lyneham and RAF St. Mawgan, the results of which I announced in July last year.

As part of that continuing process, I announced on 14 August 2003 that my Department would conduct a review of the future location of the air combat service support units based at a number of locations throughout the UK. The review also encompasses the ASACS units located at RAF Boulmer and RAF Neatishead, and a number of other minor units. The particular units at RAF Boulmer included in the review are the control and reporting centre, the school of fighter control and No. 1 ACC.

The role of the air combat service support units is to support deployed and joint operations, for example through the provision of logistics and communications facilities. For those units, the need for a review was driven by the move to expeditionary operations, which has highlighted the need for them to work and train both together and with other parts of the RAF.

In the case of the ASACS units, work carried out by the military experts at RAF strike command suggested that there would be benefit in bringing personnel on to the RAF's main operating bases. There were two principal reasons behind that recommendation. The first was that, given the increasingly expeditionary nature of modern warfare, in any conflict the fighter controllers manning the control and reporting centres were likely to find themselves operating above ground, in conditions quite different from those to be found in a bunker. That was, for example, the case during Operation Telic in Iraq. It therefore makes sense that they should operate, as far as possible, in a similar environment in the UK. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether there were any dangers associated with that. The best advice, on the basis of a military assessment, is that no insurmountable security problems would be linked to locating ACRC outside a bunker.

The second principal reason is that, for very good reasons, the control and reporting stations were originally constructed near the coast, away from airfields. As a result, aircrew rarely meet the air traffic controllers and the fighter controllers based there whose responsibility it is to guide aircrew. That is clearly not ideal in terms of achieving a close understanding and team spirit between the aircrew and controllers, something that is vital in operational conditions.

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The advent of robust communication links now allows the RAF to place its fighter controllers wherever they can be most effective. In the light of that, the review team was tasked with looking at the possibility of moving personnel on to other RAF sites. That work is consistent with the implementation of the Department's estate strategy, launched in 2000, which seeks to rationalise the defence estate as a corporate whole in accordance with the requirements of the armed forces.

Mr. Beith: Modern communications also enable contact between flying personnel and controllers, and familiarity with each other could be achieved in a variety of ways. The high cost of moving one base to another has to be set against the benefit, which could be achieved in other ways.

Mr. Ingram: I shall come to the issue of the investment appraisal approach. However, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would accept that the co-location concept, with people working together as a team, is preferable to remote relationships, because of the interdependence of the work.

The review of the defence estate has been conducted in an open manner. All hon. Members with stations in their constituencies that may be affected have been offered briefings on the study. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has taken up this offer and was briefed last month by my officials on options being considered by the review team.

The options that impact on RAF Boulmer include two options whereby the ASACS units would remain at RAF Boulmer, one that would move them to RAF Scampton and another that would move the control and reporting centre and the school of fighter control to RAF Waddington and No. 1 ACC to RAF Wittering. The right hon. Gentleman will have noted that one of the options has changed slightly since he was briefed in December. The study team had previously considered Coningsby as a possible base for much of what is currently at Boulmer. That was subsequently changed in favour of Scampton, as he mentioned. Under all the options it has been assumed that the search and rescue flight would remain at Boulmer along with the radar head, and I must stress that it is likely that RAF Boulmer will remain until the end of the decade at least.

As the House would expect, the military impact of each of the options under consideration will be a key factor in any decision, as the right hon. Gentleman recognised. It is, however, very far from being the only one. The paper that will be presented to me will include a socio-economic assessment of the regional impact of the recommended option and the results of an environmental impact assessment. It will also include the outcome of a detailed investment appraisal. I note what the right hon. Gentleman said about the cost of relocating the school of fighter control and single living accommodation, but both of those issues will be taken into account in the investment appraisal that will accompany the study. An intensive analysis will be made of those points. Last, and by no means least, it will include the views of the local authorities whose areas are likely to be affected. I am conscious of the report by the local authority in the area that the right hon. Gentleman represents, and it will genuinely be taken into consideration.

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In conducting the study, my officials have consulted widely. Trade unions have been consulted informally and my decision, once made, will be subject to formal consultation with them. A briefing was also held for all affected local authorities at RAF Strike Command last September and that was followed up by individual briefings for those councils that wanted them. All local authorities were invited to submit comments on the options. The purpose of the consultation is to ensure that the impact of each option on the affected local areas is known so that I can take it into consideration in reaching my decision. The report will be brought to my attention and I shall consider it as part of my overall assessment of the balance of the argument.

As part of the consultation process, a public meeting was held at Alnwick in November 2003. The meeting was attended by local councillors and by members of the public and was, I understand, widely reported in the local press. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the anxiety that was generated by the announcement, and I know that some of the reporting suggested that the closure of Boulmer was a foregone conclusion. I am grateful for this opportunity to reassure the right hon. Gentleman and his constituents that that is not the case. I have yet to see the study recommendations, but when I do so I will consider carefully all the points made to me, including those he made during the debate.

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As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, the MOD is constantly criticised for not doing things efficiently and effectively—it is the current mantra. However, as a Department, we undertake reviews to ensure that we are using our resources, people and money in the best way. It simply is not possible to do things better without change and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that when the decisions are taken, they will not be taken lightly. The flavour of his contribution to the debate shows that he understands that, and I am grateful for his recognition of the fact that the review was carried out carefully and responsibly.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the time scale for the review. His best guess is that it is imminent, but I cannot give him the time scale at present. Given the nature and scope of the study, the cost implications and the need for them to be considered in the investment appraisal, it will take some time. When dealing with such reviews, I take the view that I should consider only the mature conclusions. It is better for me to have the best answers on which to base my decisions. Even when conclusions are reached, I may not necessarily decide in favour of them. I may bring other judgments to bear. That is how I try to carry out my ministerial functions.

I am grateful for the contribution that the right hon. Gentleman has made to the debate, and assure him that everything he said will be fully taken into account.

Question put and agreed to.

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