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18 July 2006 : Column 20WH—continued

The work of the three standing committees is ably assisted by contributions from Members of this House, and that work in turn contributes to our efforts to
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alleviate the suffering of many people throughout the world. This year the committees have focused on combating violence against women, the control of small arms and the environment. They are all important ambitions, and it is right that the world’s parliamentarians should consider such matters of global importance.

I am pleased that the IPU continues to work closely with the United Nations. It is important that there is a dialogue between parliamentarians and the UN, and it is right that the IPU plays a leading role in that dialogue. As the UN continues to strengthen its links with civil society, the parliamentary dimension becomes even more important, and as the major global parliamentary group, the IPU has much to offer the UN’s work in support of democracy.

The Foreign Office takes part in regular discussions on the future programme of the British group of the IPU. Our geographical desks continue to offer briefings before visits overseas and our embassies contribute to the success of IPU visits, and that help will continue.

In response to the points raised by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), the Foreign Office deploys its resources to meet its strategic priorities. I was intrigued by his Tesco Metro approach, and I hope it means that he will give strong support to our efforts in several countries to co-locate our embassies and staff with those of other countries. I know what an enthusiast he is for the European Union, and I am delighted to hear him advocate the way in which we have sought to anticipate his suggestion.

There may be times when we do not have a resident ambassador and it is not possible for diplomats to visit a particular country at the same time as the British group of the IPU. Those occasions should be rare, and I am sure that hon. Members will understand that in those circumstances our help might be more limited than that which we would usually expect to offer. However, we look forward to another year of continued co-operation. The Foreign Office and our posts stand ready to give what support they properly can.

In closing, I repeat my congratulations to the British group of the IPU for its effort and successes of the past year. I wish it well for the coming year, and I know that the British group’s participation in a range of activities will contribute enormously to the spread of democracy and good governance throughout the world.

Mr. Evans: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hoon: I have one more sentence, but I am delighted to give way.

Mr. Evans: Will the Minister say something about the British Council and Chevening scholarships before he finishes his speech?

Mr. Hoon: I judged that that subject was not strictly relevant to a debate about the IPU, but I am prepared to take note of the injunction that Members have set out, and I shall carefully consider the hon. Gentleman’s speech.

I congratulate the IPU and wish it well in its future work.

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Defence Jobs

10.58 am

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue.

Shropshire has a proud and long history of serving this country in Her Majesty’s armed forces. There are 6,000 people employed in the defence sector in Shropshire, and long may that continue. The Shropshire work force are committed and skilled, and they are dedicated to continuing for many years to come the service that they have provided to the county and the nation.

Earlier this year, the Army Base Repair Organisation lost almost 100 jobs, but 770 jobs were saved as a result of the Government listening. They listened because of an Afghanistan inquiry by the Select Committee on Defence. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who agreed to hold that inquiry, which considered attrition on vehicles such as the Warrior. I believe that as a result of the inquiry, the Ministry of Defence changed its mind about closing the ABRO facility at Donnington. That decision was only a three-year stay of execution, however, and I hope that today the Minister will commit to a further extension of the facility’s life. I ask for that because the deployment to Afghanistan will last at least three years—that has been put on record by Ministers and many in this House believe that the deployment might last beyond that. If that is to be the case, it is only fair that the work force should know. That would also make sense as far as military planning is concerned. Of course, we also have what I suggest will be a very long commitment in Iraq. I hope that the Minister will allow the ABRO work force to hear that the three-year extension has been agreed at long last.

I put on record my thanks to the Minister with responsibility for the armed forces, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram) and to the former Under- Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), now in the Privy Council but on the Back Benches, for their flexibility in the allocation of MOD resources.

I turn to the Defence Logistics Organisation. Sadly, it was announced two weeks ago that several hundred jobs will probably be lost at Sapphire House in Telford, the neighbouring constituency to mine. The DLO work force have given many years of service and commitment to the armed forces and this country. I question whether the merger of the Defence Procurement Agency and the DLO is right, but if I put that aside and accepted that it is, I would still ask whether now is the right time. Given our deployments around the world—not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in the Balkans, Congo, Cyprus and Gibraltar; we have more commitments now than since the second world war—is it right to make a fundamental, key change to the operating framework of the DLO? I think not.

If we agree with the principle behind the argument that the timing of the ABRO decision was wrong, that argument can apply equally to what is happening with the Defence Logistics Organisation. I hope that the Minister will say that the timing is wrong and that the plans to move some jobs—only some jobs are involved—to Bristol and the south-west will be parked
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for the time being. There is also much concern among DLO workers about how the consultation has taken place and the new consultation that has been announced. I hope that the consultation period will be extended from 30 days to 90 days so that the case for Sapphire House can be made again to Ministers.

I also want to comment on RAF Cosford. Unemployment in Shropshire has increased by 30 per cent. in the past year and it continues to increase because of an outflow of manufacturing jobs. Sadly, we are seeing the same all over the west midlands. I hope that the west midlands will reinvent itself and become a centre of environmental technology manufacturing, rather than try to hold on to the manufacturing of years gone by. The situation is a little like that which followed the second world war, when munitions factories were turned into car manufacturing plants. Perhaps we need to convert some car manufacturing plants. They could become involved with new types of technology—for example, they could make parts of wind turbines or biomass machinery, or do biofuels engineering.

RAF Cosford is key to the future of defence jobs in Shropshire. About 2,500 people are employed there, and we want that number to expand. I am talking not only about direct military and civilian jobs at Cosford, but the supply chain, not only in Shropshire but in the west midlands more generally. Hon. Members will know that the west midlands has a proud record of serving the aerospace industry. Given recent changes at Airbus, I hope that the Government will be mindful of their need to remain committed to keeping the aerospace industry and the sector’s skills, technologies and work force commitment throughout the west midlands within our region. That can come only through Government commitment and Government leadership. I hope that we shall have some response from the Minister today.

RAF Cosford is key. The defence training review, which we hope will be announced in a few months, must come to Shropshire, and not only because of our high unemployment. Around the other competing site, St. Athan, unemployment has decreased considerably, and I give all credit to the Government for that. However, if they are serious about addressing employment issues, they need look no further than the west midlands.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As he knows, many of those who work at RAF Cosford are my constituents, so I am grateful to him. Does he agree that the threat to RAF Cosford and the jobs there is indicative of the Government’s lack of attention to Shropshire as a whole? Does it not show that, despite their lack of representation in that county, the Government need to take Shropshire far more seriously?

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention; he makes some valid points. In the past week or two, the sugar beet industry in Shropshire has been under threat as a result of British Sugar’s announcement of the closure of the Allscott factory. If the Government are serious about climate change—I digress slightly, but am answering my hon. Friend’s point—they should come to Shropshire and encourage the extension of biomass plants. There is one at the
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Harper Adams agricultural university and another over the border in Eccleshall; there may be one in north Shropshire as well. Sugar beet can be used to help to reduce climate change and carbon emissions through the use of biofuels, so I hope that the Government will consider what they will do to save the livelihood of 700 Shropshire sugar beet farmers, as well as the factory work force. My hon. Friend is right to underline the link to RAF Cosford, and the fact that the Government need to show commitment to the west midlands.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): As the hon. Gentleman knows, he will find unity across the entire west midlands on securing the future of Cosford, but I say to him and the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) that the people of the west midlands watching this debate will be looking for unity across the Chamber on putting the west midlands first, rather than Members trying to score party political points on something so key to the future of our whole region.

Mark Pritchard: I am grateful for that intervention, but was unaware that any party political points were being scored. The intervention itself might be regarded as an attempt to score party political points, but I leave the audience to make their own judgment on that. It would be easy for me to say that the Labour Government were cutting the jobs, but I shall not go there. I am happy to stay united.

It is right to put party politics aside; my view is that we are all in this together. We have to work for the corporate good and that of the whole community. It is incumbent on us as Members of Parliament to work for our constituents, putting aside party politics and working for the good of all. I agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on that point.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mark Pritchard: I spoke to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) outside the Chamber. He represents a Welsh constituency. Members with constituencies in Wales can raise points about defence issues in Welsh questions and Defence questions. Other Members with constituencies in the west midlands no doubt want to intervene, so, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall press on with the debate.

Chris Bryant: He’s frit.

Mark Pritchard: I am happy to invite the hon. Gentleman to RAF Cosford to see the fabulous facilities there. He asked about Wales. I have extrapolated some points from the vast amount of data available in the defence training review—I hope that the Minister is taking notes. The review calls for a reduction in the number of sites from 10 to two in a phased four-year programme. The key is a phased programme that is sustainable, that maximises previous investment and that does not require significant investment in local infrastructure.

Shropshire has a marvellous road network, and we know that the Government and the private sector are committed to extending the M6 toll road and linking it with the M54. What better road than one to link up with Cosford? There is also a commitment from local railway companies—it is part of the bid—to regenerate
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Cosford Halt station, which goes right into the heart of the Cosford airbus area. What better railway than one going into Cosford?

Cosford also has access to Birmingham regional airport. Some Members may disagree with me, but I would be happy to have an extra runway at Birmingham rather than at Heathrow, as it would attract investment and jobs to the area. In addition, the Cosford bid provides for new accommodation and training facilities in the first year, not in the second, third or fourth year.

Most of all, Shropshire has a vibrant community. The Albrighton Traders Association recently handed me a petition that I handed in at 10 Downing street. It asks the Government to consider the consequences to the whole of the community if Cosford does not win the bid. The decision is not just about the military or the work force, although those people clearly are important. It is about the communities of Albrighton, Shifnal and the wider Shropshire area. The impact on local schools if we lost the bid would be dramatic: pupil numbers would fall, budgets would fall and schools would have a difficult time. What would be the impact on traders, bed and breakfasts, hoteliers and local public houses? Even hairdressers—I use the same barber as many of the people at Cosford, as hon. Members can probably tell. My hair is rather short.

Daniel Kawczynski: Very fetching.

Mark Pritchard: I can recommend Mark Egerton of Shifnal. I do not declare an interest: I pay every time and even give a minor tip.

Chris Bryant: Not more than £2.50, I hope.

Mark Pritchard: I pay £6.50.

The impact on the community would be serious. I hope that the Government will take an holistic, regional view of the effects should Cosford not win the bid.

Daniel Kawczynski: At present, I am negotiating with the chief executive of Arriva Trains, Mr. Holland, significantly to improve Arriva’s service between Shrewsbury and Birmingham, which passes through Cosford. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be far more difficult for local MPs and organisations to campaign for better rail services if Cosford were not successful?

Chris Bryant: He said that the infrastructure was already there.

Mark Pritchard: We must improve on a rail system that, for the most part, is a good service. My hon. Friend is right to push for improvements, and Arriva Trains, Central Trains or whoever might win future franchises must ensure that they continue to improve the services. This is—forgive me—a twin-track process, whereby the railways would benefit from Cosford, and Cosford would benefit from the railways. Obviously, the local community would benefit from both.

That links nicely with the education sector. Wolverhampton university is an excellent university. It works closely with organisations in the West Midlands technology corridor, which is a cluster of aerospace and technology companies. I hope that that will be a key factor in the decision-making process of the Ministry of Defence. There is an important geographical economy
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of scale as far as Cosford is concerned. There is a skills set right on its doorstep, and that should be a central consideration.

People who might be required, asked, invited or told to move to St. Athan, should it win the bid, may not go. We are seeing that in the Defence Logistics Organisation. Much of its work force are unable to move to Bristol and the south-west. The fact is that the house prices in St. Athan are 30 per cent. above the regional average. Compare them with the house prices in Cosford, which are 30 per cent. below the regional average. If the Government think that everybody will up sticks and go to St. Athan, they are mistaken, as they were mistaken in respect of the DLO.

Chris Bryant: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mark Pritchard: I am an admirer of the hon. Gentleman, but I always admire him more when he is silent. I am sorry to tell him that this will be such an opportunity. I told him earlier that I was unable to take his intervention, given that he has an opportunity to raise the issue during Welsh questions. I look forward to his tabling a question on St. Athan for the next Welsh questions. No doubt he will also ask a supplementary on Cosford. [Interruption.]

John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman is not giving way.

Mark Pritchard: Thank you, Mr. Cummings.

The education sector is important. I pay tribute to Professor Caroline Gipps, who is the vice-chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton, and to all the work that is being done to help RAF Cosford to win the bid. It is vital that the Government take a regional and holistic view. I come back to that point, as the decision will be critical to the local education sector—not only primary and secondary schools, but the university sector as well. The university works hand in hand with RAF Cosford and the Defence College of Aeronautical Engineering.

In the context of what is happening around the world, it is likely that there will be more emphasis on aeronautics and, dare I say it, even missile technology. Should Britain become part of the ballistic missile defence shield—I am not saying that it should, but there must be a debate in the House at some point—Cosford will play a part in that. Therefore, we should not disrupt Cosford at this time.

I conclude on a wider point. This is a personal view, not a party view. I question whether this country’s defence privatisation has gone too far, and I say that as a Conservative. These are not party political matters. National security goes beyond that. It is the duty of all Governments first and foremost to protect their citizens, and that is also the duty of humble Back Benchers, which most of us are. I question whether the present Government, in their desire to be more macho on privatisation than the Conservative Government, are privatising too much and undermining our national security in the process. Secondly, do they compare post-privatisation or possible privatisation outputs with public sector outputs?

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