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1 Feb 2006 : Column 127WH—continued

RAF Stafford

4 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): It is a pleasure to start this debate and to see my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence in his place to answer it. He and I have discussed RAF Stafford quite a lot in recent years, so I doubt whether anything that I say today will come as a surprise to him.

Let me start with the background. At RAF Stafford, uniformed personnel and civilians provide—very effectively—a range of support services, all of which are time critical and some of which are dangerous. I am thinking of the tactical supply wing, which supplies fuel to front-line helicopters in times of conflict.

4.1 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.15 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Kidney : Uses of RAF Stafford have until now included a number of the air combat service support units—everything from motorised transport to catering—defence storage and distribution, tactical supply wing, engineering wing, mountain rescue, Ministry of Defence police and fire contingents, and cadet training, including Army cadet training since the Territorial Army centre in Stafford was sold under the strategic defence review. Recently, another Government Department, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has announced that it will locate a new decontamination service serving the whole of the UK at RAF Stafford.

RAF Stafford enjoys the full support of its local community. The base has existed for 60 years. In 2004, the community celebrated the 50th anniversary of having granted RAF Stafford the freedom of the borough. If RAF Stafford was unpopular locally, my constituents would not be so worried about losing some or all of the base's activities. In fact, it is very popular. In 2004, I started a petition to allow residents to express their support for RAF Stafford, and 5,000 people signed in three weeks. I presented that petition to Parliament. In time for this debate, I have another petition that I hope to give to the Minister. It was collected by local trade unionists. They simply stood in the market square in Stafford on three Saturdays in January, and they tell me that more than 2,000 local residents signed their petition in support of keeping the storage and distribution centre at RAF Stafford open.

RAF Stafford also takes a full part in civic occasions. That includes Remembrance day parades and battle of Britain civic services, which are always well supported by civil society as well as the military community. As many of the jobs at RAF Stafford are civilian, many local people work there. Many of the uniformed personnel also own houses locally, and when they retire from RAF Stafford, many of them settle locally.

The MOD continually reviews the way that services are configured, rightly seeking to ensure that we retain the best operational capability and value for money. However, I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister that
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the complete closure of the Stafford base would cause disastrous damage to our local economy. In round figures, about 900 civil servants work at RAF Stafford, along with 500 uniformed personnel engaged in logistic support—although they soon leave us—and 250 more uniformed personnel in tactical supply wing. It is not, of course, a main operating base; it does not have a runway.

I do not want to dwell for long on the decision to move the air combat service support unit's logistics military personnel—there are about 450 of them—from Stafford to Wittering. That decision will be put into effect in March. As the Minister knows, he took that decision against my wishes, but I can at least say that there is a strategic rationale for moving the support units closer to the front-line forces that they would be expected to deploy with in the event of future rapid deployments. It also assists in training for operations between deployments if they are located near to each other. However, when the decision to move them was taken, there were forecasts of large financial savings, but I think that he could now confirm that those savings have not materialised. Perhaps that provides a salutary lesson for the Minister, as he has similarly been told that the Army's plans now for the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency will save money.

The tri-service working is now very apparent at RAF Stafford in respect of storage and distribution. Whenever I visit, I see air, Army and naval stores and equipment there. It was very different before 1997, when there were separate stores and distribution arrangements for each service. As the RAF rationalised its storage and distribution arrangements, RAF Stafford eventually became the only remaining RAF base for those activities. You know very well about that, Mr. Martlew, because when the RAF had got down to the last two possible bases, one was Stafford and one was in your constituency at Carlisle. Stafford became the last one. Then along came tri-service working, and rationalisation has now started again. Today, the storage and distribution services at RAF Stafford form part of the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency, which in turn is part of the Defence Logistics Organisation. Stafford is run jointly with similar activities at the Army base MOD Donnington. All the storage and distribution workers at Stafford are civil servants.

On 21 July 2005, the Ministry of Defence announced its decision to close the operations at Stafford by December 2007, so ending the last RAF-specific contribution to the agency. The centre for such operations in future will be the Army base at Bicester. My local churches forum described this as an unfortunate decision. I found it curious, given that Stafford carries out 80 per cent. of the current operations of the agency, has achieved the best efficiency performance in the agency and has the only high-activity storage and distribution centre in the whole of the agency. Indeed, the business plan for taking most of the work to Bicester involves building a brand-new high-activity centre to replace the existing efficient one at Stafford, which presumably will stand empty after the transfer has taken place. There are echoes of the duff advice that the Minister was given over the savings to be had by a move of the air combat services support units to Wittering.
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I am pleased that the review of DSDA as a whole resulted in a decision to keep the storage and distribution operations in-house and to grant enhanced agency status. However, as a consequence of the decision on job losses at Stafford and, in reality, because of several other decisions involving civilian MOD job losses around the country in recent months, the trade unions are campaigning for a change of direction. In the case of RAF Stafford specifically, they are asking for a review of the decision to end storage and distribution operations at Stafford, and are presenting a case for continuing to make productive use of the high-activity storage and distribution centre, which is supported by an engineering enclave.

On the proposal to retain the high-activity centre, I simply point out that the midlands is an acknowledged leader in logistics in the United Kingdom—understandably, given its location in the centre of the country. As the Minister saw when he visited RAF Stafford—it really was as long ago as September 2004, although it seems like yesterday—equipment comes into Stafford from all over the country all the time, and goes out to other MOD locations all over the UK on a daily basis. When I visit the Argos and Exel logistics operation at Acton Gate in my constituency, which is a comparable operation in the private sector, I am reassured that the midlands offers the same high standards in logistics in both the public and the private sectors.

On the future for some 300 engineering workers at RAF Stafford, the Minister may know that twice in two years announcements have been made that have left them completely in the dark about their future. It would be a positive end to a worrying roller-coaster ride if they could be reassured about their future and, more generally, about the situation at RAF Stafford. One employee asked me to remind the powers that be, as he calls them, how loyal and supportive employees at Stafford have been to their colleagues in the MOD and Her Majesty's Government. He stated:

That reminder about Operation Telic caused me to review the National Audit Office report for Operation Telic. I am sure that the Minister will confirm the finding that the well publicised supplies shortages that arose at that time related only to in-theatre operations. In fact, the NAO report on page 17 states:

On page 3 it states:

The result was that twice the material was delivered to the theatre of operations in half the time, as compared with the previous 1990–91 Gulf war. When I visited during the period of maximum effort, I met workers who were turning in to work seven days a week to make the operation a success.

Local people have responded as constructively as they can to the announcements by the Ministry of Defence, especially the one about ending storage and distribution
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operations at Stafford. I recently joined other concerned interests in Stafford such as the local councils and the regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, to form a taskforce to co-ordinate the local response. It is not a matter of my asking the Minister what he can do to help us. We are doing what we can to help ourselves locally.

The Minister knows about that because he kindly met a delegation from the taskforce that I brought to see him on 8 September 2005 and I was grateful for his co-operative responses. One of his decisions as a result of that meeting was to allow access to the civilian work force of Stafford by Jobcentre Plus and that has been helpful. It is proving extremely useful in building up support for those who will lose their jobs by way of training, advice and help with searching for jobs. The Minister also agreed that a representative of Defence Estates could support the taskforce and we have since met representatives of the Ministry of Defence as a result of that decision.

The Minister knows that we have a loyal and long-serving work force at RAF Stafford. Many of those who will lose their jobs have worked there for a long time and are over 50. They are learning that they will be disadvantaged in the redundancy package allowed to them because they are over 50.

I note from my correspondence with the Minister that the rules of the scheme are clear, but is there no help that could be given to workers aged over 50 who are facing sizeable financial losses? There is also a rule that help with retraining is not available more than three months ahead of redundancy. It would be helpful if the Minister could override that rule and say that workers at RAF Stafford who are threatened with the loss of their jobs next year could have help with retraining this year.

The other uniformed personnel remaining at RAF Stafford are the tactical supply wing, which is a vital part of every dangerous mission, as I have explained. They are virtually first to the front line and supply the fuel that keeps helicopters flying. They have had a base in Northern Ireland for more than 30 years. The head of that service is Joint Helicopter Command. They will stay at RAF Stafford for the foreseeable future, but it would be helpful if the Minister could tell me something about their presence in the longer term.

The question obviously arises as to whether there is a future for a military base at Stafford after these announcements. To be clear, Stafford people support our armed forces and want a presence in the county town. They support me strongly in seeking to persuade the Minister to agree to build up RAF Stafford with alternative military uses if current uses have to change. They also want continued opportunities for civilian jobs at the base.

Opportunities are coming up to enable Stafford to be used for alternative military purposes. The Defence Medical Education and Training Service has been successfully built up again after the terrible hollowing out that occurred before 1997. There is a new hospital development at Birmingham, Selly Oak. I know that the service has been looking outside Birmingham but within its proximity for less costly accommodation for its headquarters and non-hospital activities. Stafford has been considered as one of a number of locations that might be suitable and I have been told that as many as
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1,000 jobs are involved. I have provided the Ministry of Defence and the Defence Medical Education and Training Agency with a portfolio of evidence of the excellent clinical networks that are available at Stafford. There is a university on the doorstep with a school of health providing nursing training. There is an acute hospital trust that is willing to share training and laboratory work with the agency's headquarters. There is a mental hospital trust that is willing to form joint protocols on post-traumatic stress disorder investigations. There is a technology park next door to RAF Stafford with medical technology businesses that are at the forefront of development of medical technologies such as Sterilox Technologies International Ltd. Our ambulance service trust in Staffordshire is willing to do joint training with military personnel to assist them when they become civilians and need civilian qualifications later. Truthfully, I believe that the Defence Medical Education and Training Agency would benefit enormously from being plugged into those networks in Stafford.

A new 22 Signal Regiment is being formed and the Army would be very welcome at Stafford. I understand that around 700 military personnel will be involved in that regiment. Given the highly technological nature of today's communications systems, there is, again, a glorious fit at Stafford with the neighbouring technology park, where several graduate IT and communications businesses were started. The university has an international reputation for computing sciences and a growing department for media technology studies. In the longer term beyond those opportunities, there is talk of the Army developing garrison town settlements and Stafford might fit well with that development. Its edge-of-town location, good communications with the rest of the country and supportive civilian population make it a good choice, in my book. Local media reported positively on the Gurkhas visit to Stafford. I do not know if the Minister knows anything about that.

Such emphatically military uses will not provide anywhere near the number of civilian jobs that RAF Stafford supports in its defence, storage and distribution operations. That is why I ask the Minister to look at the trade unions' case for saving some of the storage and distribution, and engineering jobs at Stafford.

The taskforce that I helped to set up makes a great case for buying from the Ministry of Defence a portion of the camp's land that immediately adjoins the successful technology park. We believe that we can quickly raise the money to pay the full asking price for that land, and we know that businesses are interested in having premises there for light industrial and further technological uses. Can we therefore not go through a tortuous MOD process that leaves off taking a decision about sales until every other decision has been taken? Businesses are taking their business decisions now, and we need to know whether we can offer them land at that valuable location. It even makes sense that the MOD should have the capital receipt from the sale and plough it back into making the remainder of the site more amenable for the other users who are under consideration so that everyone wins.
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I do not usually quote my local daily newspaper, the Express and Star, because it is not usually that supportive, but last week in an editorial it said:

That is a fair summary of the situation.

The military activities carried out at RAF Stafford are all vital to the efficient and effective operation of the UK's armed forces, and the public of Stafford support the military presence in the county town and want it to continue. The announced losses of military and civilian personnel at RAF Stafford will harm our local economy unless we act decisively in response to the changing situation. We are doing all that we can for ourselves, but we need the MOD's co-operation. Retaining storage distribution and engineering capabilities at Stafford would help Stafford and be in the MOD's best interests. We would welcome the Defence Medical Education and Training Agency to Stafford and the clinical networks there would create two-way benefits for military and NHS clinical staff.

We would welcome the establishment of a new 22 Signal Regiment at Stafford, and it would fit with our existing specialism in computing, IT and media technologies. An Army base at Stafford would be well received by local people and existing facilities at RAF Stafford could be adapted to meet the Army's needs. Our enterprising taskforce asks the MOD to allow us to buy a portion of land to enable us to provide alternative civilian jobs for those civilians who are due to lose their jobs at RAF Stafford next year. Clearly there is an agenda that we could all sign up to which would mean some success for everybody, but a lot depends on the response from the MOD. Perhaps that can start with the Minister's response to this debate.

4.33 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing the debate and thank him for providing me with the opportunity to speak on this important issue. I pay tribute to his tireless efforts in support of his constituents' interests at RAF Stafford. Once again, he has set out his case cogently and well.

The changes that have taken place at Stafford and in the wider region are part of a much broader process of change in the MOD. We are determined to modernise and improve the delivery of support services and to make the best use of available resources to ensure that every penny counts for the front line. As part of our response to the Gershon review, the MOD is committed to making 2.5 per cent. efficiencies annually between the financial years 2005–06 and 2007–08. That equates to £2.83 billion of efficiencies by April 2008. The savings from those efficiencies will all be reinvested in providing better delivery at the front line of defence.

As part of the defence change programme, the Department has also committed to reducing the number of civilian posts by more than 11,000 and the number of military posts in administration and support by more than 5,000. Again, the savings will all be reinvested in the front line. If we do not make those savings, the front line will go without.
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I am aware of the impact on MOD staff employed in the west midlands of the various recent announcements related to the defence change programme, which covered areas such as training, logistics, repair and maintenance and the supply chain. I am also conscious of the continuing uncertainty about the long-term usage not only of the MOD estate at Stafford but of other sites in the region, and I understand the impact of that uncertainty on the local community. I regret that I am not in a position to remove it today.

As my hon. Friend is aware, a number of separate strands of work are being undertaken in the Department that bear on future employment opportunities in the region. He alluded to them, and I shall comment on them later. Hon. Members may rest assured that when I am in a position to make announcements to the House, I shall do so at the first possible instance.

Today, the Stafford site has two principal defence users, the RAF and the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency, which is part of the Defence Logistics Organisation. RAF functions at Stafford comprise the 85 expeditionary logistics wing, which provides logistics support to deployed operations, and the tactical supply wing, which supports the joint helicopter fleet and is under the command of the Joint Helicopter Command headquarters. Also, an engineering services function recently transferred from the RAF to DSDA, and the RAF museum reserve collection is situated on one of the outlying sites under lease from the MOD.

Two current initiatives will affect future employment at Stafford. The first stems from our announcement in July 2004 concerning the creation of the air combat service support unit logistics hub at Wittering. I appreciate my hon. Friend's recognition of the rationale behind that decision, and I recognise his unhappiness that it went against Stafford.

The build-up of the logistics hub at RAF Wittering is proceeding as planned, and includes the relocation of the 85 expeditionary logistics wing from Stafford. That move will result in a reduction of 59 civilian posts and the transfer of about 440 RAF posts. With the transfer of the 85 EL wing, direct RAF interest in the Stafford site will cease. The technical supply wing, which employs 210 RAF personnel, will remain, pending a decision on the future basing requirements of the support helicopter force.

My hon. Friend referred to another part of the process of change, and spoke about the duff information that I was given. What happened was this: we were looking at RAF Scampton as a preferred base for the communications hub. When we revisited Scampton for site analysis, we discovered that such a move would have considerable cost implications. We then looked around the rest of the estate, and considered Stafford while doing so. However, because of insufficient domestic accommodation, that move would have been costly to the MOD. As a result, we have announced that RAF Leeming will become the centre. I do not accept that the information was duff. It was the best information at the time, and it was carefully analysed and revisited. If RAF Stafford had come out favourably, of course we would have made that decision accordingly.

Mr. Kidney : I do not want to go over old wounds, but it is important to consider when looking forward that
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my right hon. Friend was assured that accommodation at Wittering would be fine for the personnel transferring. Once the decision was taken, it was decided that it was not fine. The Ministry of Defence has paid premium prices for the construction of new accommodation for the people moving from Stafford to Wittering, and that was not taken into account in the original calculations. That is the kind of thing that I am asking him to beware of the second time around.

Mr. Ingram : I am not sure that I agree with that analysis, but I shall write to my hon. Friend on the matter. We are always wary of the analyses, and we always ensure that they are properly scrutinised using a range of methods. That is why some of the things that we do change direction. As we do the site analysis, we discover infrastructure issues. For example, the water and sewerage might be very old. Any old site will have old infrastructure, and as we explore it we discover other elements. If the information is not accurate, it must be revisited and examined and hopefully the correct decision will be taken.

The second stream of work that has an impact on employment at the site is the future of the defence supply chain initiative. It was launched in 2002 with the aim of improving the management of the defence supply chain. In July of last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced to the House the selection of an in-house option known as "Do Different," on the basis that it would provide the best balance between improved logistic support to operations and better value for money for taxpayers. Under the FDSCI three defence storage and distribution centres are due to close by 2009. The first of those will be at Stafford in 2007.

An important aspect is that we are talking about an in-house preferred bid against private-sector competitors. We have been criticised in the past—wholly wrongly, as far as I am concerned—for believing that private is good and public bad. The present case is a good example of where the reverse is clearly the case.

The closures to which I refer are in no way a reflection of the invaluable contribution that employees at the DSDCs have made—some over decades of employment at the MOD, as my hon. Friend said. Given the consequences for staff, the decision under the FDSCI was difficult. However, our experience on operations has shown that it is imperative for us to improve support to the front line. That is not a criticism of the work done at the sites, as my hon. Friend pointed out in reference to the National Audit Office report, but we must improve the means by which we deliver, right through from the factory at the beginning of the supply chain to the front line.

Such a change will produce a modern and effective defence supply chain, focused on meeting the demands of today's armed forces. Our calculation suggests that full implementation of the change will make savings of more than £50 million a year by 2010, and of more than £400 million over the next 10 years. Those are very sizeable savings.

The new supply chain organisation will require some 2,000 fewer posts. Of those reductions, almost all will be civilian jobs and approximately 530 will be at the Stafford DSDC. Natural wastage will account for some
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of the total reduction and there may be opportunities for some staff to transfer elsewhere within the MOD, but we expect about 280 redundancies. The future of engineering services, which employs slightly more than 230 civilian personnel and 33 servicemen, falls outwith the scope of the FDSCI and is the subject of a separate study.

We are committed to providing appropriate support to the staff at RAF Stafford and elsewhere who are affected by these decisions, and we have engaged fully with the trade unions. Arrangements for MOD welfare and outplacement services will be extended to provide staff, their spouses and dependants at all affected sites with access to professional advice and assistance where possible. The service is designed to help with financial advice, preparation for employment in the private sector, and relocation. I have taken note of my hon. Friend's points about pensions and possible training in advance of some of the dates in question. Again, I will write to him on that point. If we can help, we will do so, but clearly we are sometimes inhibited by existing regulations.

There may be some opportunity for staff working at Stafford to transfer to Donnington, or to other Government Departments, and so a staff preference exercise will be undertaken. As my hon. Friend knows, my officials are already working closely with Jobcentre Plus to manage the draw-down of numbers and, where possible, to identify alternative employment opportunities for staff affected.

I commend my hon. Friend's positive engagement with Stafford borough council in establishing the taskforce that aims to secure the Stafford site as a long-term future source of local employment. I emphasise, however, that there are no plans to dispose of the Stafford estate. Defence Estates remains engaged with the taskforce and continues to explore possible alternative uses for the site. I know that the process seems long and drawn-out, but if we have valuable estate, we would be wrong to dispose of such assets until we know precisely what the future requirements of the site will be. Although it looks as if a planning blight is being put on the site, we are trying to do what is right for defence.

The total number of staff who will remain on the Stafford site post-2007, not including those at the RAF museum facility or contractors, will be approximately 210 service personnel and two civil servants, all of whom are part of the tactical supply wing. Those figures do not, of course, take into account any number associated with future basing options that are the subject of ongoing studies, such as that considering the future of engineering services—

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order.

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