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Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab):
My hon. Friend announced the closure of the storage and distribution centre at Stafford in apparently a little more than a year's time. Does he know that the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency has 43 presences in the United
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Kingdom and one high activity centre, which is RAF Stafford? Yet Stafford is to be the first to close. In the context of running a business, I would have thought that the place with the most valuable asset would deserve more attention before the decision was made. Does my hon. Friend realise that it is estimated that more than 2,000 jobs will be lost in the closures at Stafford, Llangennech and Longtown? Does he know that a good half of those jobs are in Stafford alone? Does he appreciate how substantial a blow that will prove to the local economy and what a terrible shock it will be to the people who learn that their jobs are going? Will jobs actually be lost? Can he say anything today about the civilian jobs at RAF Stafford if closure takes place? There is a critical decision to be made
Mr. Touhig: I appreciate my hon. Friend's concern. It is a proper concern for a diligent and hard-working Member of Parliament from any party. As I said, job losses will result from the announcement. The proposals are out for consultation with the trade unions. Clearly, hon. Members have a role to play. If they want to make representations about any of the changes and proposed job losses, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will be happy to receive them before any final decisions are made.
I appreciate that the process is difficult, but I believe that it is the right process for the objectives that we are trying to achieve. However, I also believe that consultation must be genuine, and we want to have a dialogue. Ultimately, we must make the decisions, but decisions are better if they are well informed by local opinion and views from all sides. We will try to take the views of any hon. Member on board.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for ensuring that a Minister was brought here to explain the consequences of one of today's 65 written statements. In the past week, there have been 156 written statements; last week, there were 34. A charitable person might say that the Government were anxious to convey information to hon. Members as soon as possible. However, it is possible that there is an ulterior motive. Perhaps in the last week before a recess, written statements should all be subject to recall, just as you kindly accepted the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael).
The Minister gave a roll-call of closures. He said that 37 Squadron RAF Regiment, which is based at RAF Wittering, will disband by March 2006; 16 Squadron, which is based at RAF Honington, will disband by March 2007; RAF GBAD Wing Headquarters, also at RAF Honington, and 26 Squadron, based at RAF Waddington, will disband by March 2008. Those are among the 7,000 RAF redundancies that have been announced. It has also been decided that 2625 (County of Cornwall) Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force Regiment, based alongside 1 Squadron at RAF St. Mawgan should be disbanded from November 2006. The Minister said that he was putting meat on the bone. May I suggest that that is butchery?
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Mr. Touhig: No, the hon. Gentleman cannot suggest that. I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I did not adequately present my points, but I thought that I had been clear. In July 2004, we announced that the role of providing ground-based air defence would be transferred to the Army from four Royal Air Force squadrons and that they would therefore be disbanded. The meat on the boneso to speakthat I have sought to give the House are the details of the squadrons that will be affected by the decision. The decision was already known and the principle should therefore not surprise the hon. Gentleman.
I am not responsible for all the ministerial statements that were tabled today. We have accepted the principle of Ministers making written statements. If there are to be changes to that, it is a matter for the usual channels and House, not for me as a Minister, to determine. I have tried to underpin in my remarks today that, as a Minister, I have a prime responsibility to come here and answer for Government decisions. That is what I am trying to do. There has been no attempt on my part or that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to do anything about which the House should not be made aware. We have made the written statements available in the normal way. If there is a problem with that mechanism, that is a wider issue on which I cannot make a decision. I have sought in every possible way to provide colleagues with this information, and I will continue to work with any colleagues who have queries or worries, so that they can be properly informed about this decision.
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): The Opposition spokesman raised the issue of university air squadrons. Does my hon. Friend accept that his inability to give us any information about the future of those squadrons will create great uncertainty in bases such as RAF Church Fenton in my constituency, which depend on the university air squadrons? Will he clarify later today what is going to happen, perhaps by means of a further written statement, because it would be unacceptable if an announcement on that matter were made during the parliamentary recess?
Mr. Touhig: I understand my hon. Friend's anxiety, but I am being asked to comment on some piece of hearsay, or whatever it is on which the hon. Member for Aldershot has based his remarks. I am not in a position to do that. It would be improper for me to mislead the House by pretending that I had that information. I have given an undertaking that I will take the issue up immediately I get back to the MOD, and if there is something that should or could be said, we will say it.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): In associating myself with the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), may I ask the Minister simply to confirm to those in the House and those outside that the Government had no intention of making an oral statement today, but every intention of briefing the press?
I think that I covered that point earlier[Interruption.] The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) is a respected Member of the House. I treat him with the same respect
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with which he treats me, and I will seek to give him an answer. It was intended that there should be written ministerial statements today
Mr. Touhig: Patience! Just calm down. Those statements would be augmented by briefing in the normal way that goes on right across government[Interruption.] When the Conservatives were in government, they did exactly the same in terms of putting information into the media. That is the right and proper way to disseminate information. The first responsibility of the Government is to give the information to the House, and that is what we did in the written statements.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): The shipbuilding industry in the UK has been given a tremendous boost over the past few years by record investment, bringing back to parts of the north-east shipbuilding that was taken away by the Conservative Government. May I therefore welcome my hon. Friend's announcement on the MARS programme? That project will provide a future for the shipbuilding industry in the UK. Will he give me an assurance that urgent talks will take place with shipbuilders throughout the country to ensure that the necessary skills and capacity exist in the industry to meet the requirements of the MARS programme?
Mr. Touhig: I cannot give my hon. Friend a specific assurance on that point, but in view of the other announcements that I have made today, all these matters will be taken on board so far as the future shipbuilding programme is concerned.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): So that we may better understand the Government's record on defence, will the Minister confirm that, alongside the amalgamation of Scotland's infantry regiments, since 1997 thousands of jobs have been lost and facilities have closed in Scotland? Those affected include RAF Lossiemouth, RAF Leuchars, RAF Kinloss, HMS Gannet, RAF Stornoway, Fairlie, Rosyth, Machrihanish, and Bin Hill. Hundreds of jobs on the Clyde have also been affected. Is it not the truth that conventional defence is being sacrificed because the Government are more prepared to spend billions of pounds on new generations of weapons of mass destruction?
Mr. Touhig: I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman stands, but I am a passionate Unionist. I believe in the United Kingdom, although I am not so sure that he and his party do[Interruption.] Let me just say to the hon. Gentleman that this Government have a record, of which we can be proud, of supporting our forces, of investing in them, and of ensuring that they are capable of meeting the challenges that they face today. That means taking difficult decisions. The hon. Gentleman is a member of a party that will never be in government and will never have to take any difficult decisions.
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