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Reading through the jargon, I think that that means that Hythe is doing a very good job.

I do not have time to quote from the 30 letters that I have from different companies whose ancillary business is worth £4.5 million to the local economies of this country. Those businesses are not just from around Southampton but from areas as far afield as Leicester, Sunderland and Cwmbran.

Will the Minister meet the work force, enlist the aid of the Foreign Office and, in particular, make written representations to the American authorities on behalf of the continuation of Hythe? There is no strategic reason for its closure or political justification for closing what amounts to 95 per cent. of the US army’s footprint in this country. There is no economic justification, as it
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is a betrayal of the US taxpayer as much as of our ancillary industries, and there is certainly no moral justification for the closure.

10.54 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): First, let me express my appreciation to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) for what was undoubtedly a thorough and well-rehearsed contribution, and for the support that he is showing for his constituents in seeking to understand the reasons for the United States’ decision to withdraw from RAF Hythe. Of course, had his speech been more concise I should have had more than 10 minutes in which to respond.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the decision to withdraw US Army operations from RAF Hythe by 30 September this year was confirmed in a letter to the Ministry of Defence only this afternoon. I agree with him that it will be very disappointing news for the local work force, especially given the valuable contribution made by RAF Hythe’s highly trained and dedicated workers over the years. The hon. Gentleman paid generous tribute to them.

I remind the House that this was very much a US decision. I know the hon. Gentleman understands that. Notwithstanding the case that he presented, I know that he is also aware that the decision was made as part of a wider US review of the global posture of US forces across the world. That has resulted in the reconfiguring of the US “global footprint” and reductions in US forces, particularly those stationed in western Europe.

While I fully appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern for the local community, the US decision should be viewed in a wider context. RAF Hythe is one of several RAF bases in the United Kingdom made available to United States visiting forces under the terms of the NATO Status of Forces Agreement of 1951. It is one of the smallest bases of that kind, and the only US visiting force facility in Britain that is used exclusively by the US Army. It is also unique in that it is the only US facility in the United Kingdom that handles marine assets by the waterfront, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out.

Although RAF Hythe is the only US Army base in the UK, there are other US visiting force bases in the UK that employ considerable numbers of US military personnel, including some members of the US Army. Overall, the US visiting force presence totals more than 20,000 service personnel and their families, who represent a considerable investment in the US-UK special relationship. I recognise that notwithstanding that wider presence, this will be a difficult time for the 200 or so civilians employed by the US Government at RAF Hythe who are now considering their future as a result of the US decision to withdraw from the base.

The hon. Gentleman dealt with the function of RAF Hythe, so I need not go into it now. There are currently only two US personnel stationed there, including the facility commander and a small complement of 12 Ministry of Defence police. However, there are around 210 civilians employed by the US Government in connection with the base. Those personnel are employed in a wide variety of trades. Approximately
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170 are “blue-collar” workers, while around 40 fulfil “white-collar” functions in supply, administration and facilities management. The blue-collar posts are mainly in support of the marine repair function, and include marine mechanics, electricians, platers, pipefitters and painters. Many of the personnel have been carrying out those specialist roles since the start of the operation in 1975, and their loyalty and commitment are commendable.

RAF Hythe also has a first-class apprenticeship training regime, which has produced a highly trained and skilled work force. Such is the value of their skills that a significant number of them are in demand overseas: the hon. Gentleman mentioned many of the areas in which they are involved. They are employed by the US Government around the world—for instance, in locations in Kuwait and Japan. At any one time, between 30 and 50 of the personnel directly hired locally are deployed to overseas sites for periods of three months at a time. A full team in Kuwait comprises 23 staff, and a full team in Japan comprises 27. Given that the bulk of those posts require skilled blue-collar workers, the deployed task falls largely to the 170 marine engineering tradesmen.

The hon. Gentleman knows how disappointed I was to learn today that the US Army no longer requires RAF Hythe, when the US Government confirmed their decision to cease their operations at the base by 30 September 2006. The hon. Gentleman first raised this issue early in the new year—he was on to it early on—but it was not until early April that the Ministry of Defence received notification of the US Government’s intention to withdraw from the base by this September. As I said, only today did final confirmation of the decision come through.

I know that our US ally will acknowledge the considerable contribution that RAF Hythe and its work force have made to both countries’ defence over the decades. That will doubtless be reflected in their treatment of their committed local work force, who have given such loyal and sterling service over the years. Indeed, the US ambassador and I spoke about that very point.

During my discussions with the US ambassador, I fully recognised that the final decision can be made only by the US Government. I was keen to register then the MOD’s interest for two principal reasons. First, if the decision to withdraw from the base were formalised, as has since proved the case, I wished to make it clear how important it was that all those affected understood the timing of, and reasons for, the decision. Secondly, I wanted to register the concern, expressed this evening by the hon. Gentleman, that careful consideration be given to mitigating measures to ease the effects of the withdrawal locally, and to the thoughtful and sensitive handling of the situation. I know that the ambassador duly registered that point.

I was made aware that the MOD police complement at RAF Hythe was informed by its management of the US proposals in early April. Separately, I have been made aware that the approximately 210 civilians employed by the US Government were notified of the decision earlier today. I mention this because I have been copied a letter that the chairman of the local national employee council wrote to the US President and to the Prime Minister, among others. Again, I
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registered that point with the US ambassador during my conversation with him. That letter made some very significant points, which the hon. Gentleman cogently expressed in this debate.

Let me deal with the UK MOD personnel, which is where my responsibility lies. The MOD police senior management were quick to inform and brief their officers about the consequences of the US proposal to withdraw from the base. I understand that senior management within the MOD police are considering redeployment of their officers, as necessary, and it is appropriate that we handle our personnel accordingly.

It is too early to determine the long-term future of RAF Hythe. If the base is to be vacated, a detailed process will be gone through to look for alternative uses. The hon. Gentleman will be fully aware that that first involves looking for alternative defence uses. If that is not possible, the site will be offered to other Government Departments, and appropriate rules for disposal will be applied. We are very conscious of the quality of the property that we have. Even when we
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ourselves vacate such property, we try at all times to ensure that we are not divesting ourselves of valuable assets that would be difficult to replace or replicate. A sensitive process is gone through in that regard.

In concluding, I hope that I can go some way toward satisfying the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. The news confirmed today is particularly disappointing for those civilian employees who have worked so hard in support of the US military mission at RAF Hythe for so many years. I will draw the US Government’s attention to this debate, and I know that the hon. Gentleman will pursue his case with vigour at all appropriate levels within the US Administration. Like him, I am keen to continue our excellent relations with our closest ally, the United States, and I know that none of his comments attacked that very close relationship. He is a great admirer of that relationship, as are this Government, and it will continue in the decades to come.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Eleven o’clock.

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