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18 July 2006 : Column 26WH—continued

Thirdly, the Government may be underplaying the importance of the military ethos within such organisations.
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Many civilians working at Cosford, for example, are ex-military. Not all of them are, and people do not have to be ex-military to be good at their job, but there is a clear link between the military ethos and the hard work, commitment and dedication of employees at Cosford and, indeed, the DLO.

I hope that the Government will put a brake on some of their privatisation plans. For example, there has not been an in-house bid in respect of RAF Cosford. I would like to see an in-house bid. How can we have an open consultation process without one? How can the Government consider economic factors, specific training factors and the wider socio-economic factors—the hard and soft measures—when they have not considered an in-house bid? I should be interested to hear what the Minister has to say. The Government have denied that the review is about an estates package; they say that it is not about property and buildings but just about defence training. If that is the case, let us see an in-house bid and if that is not good enough, so be it. But we need to tread carefully before stepping forward to even more privatisation when there have been some pretty big disasters.

There is a certain so-called British company that seems to win virtually every defence order at the moment in this country, yet a lot of its defence manufacturing is undertaken abroad. How is that British? How is that protecting British jobs? I shall mention that company: it is BAE Systems. It may be said that it employs a lot of people in this country; it does, and I am grateful for that, but do we want to put all our eggs in one basket? BAE seems to be winning virtually every contract under the sun and I ask whether we should require the company to commit to undertaking a larger proportion of its defence manufacturing in this country rather than letting it say, “We are listed on the stock market in the UK, therefore we are British and we are protected from any criticism about outsourcing manufacturing abroad.”

Shropshire has a proud history and heritage in the defence sector. It is committed to serving this country and Her Majesty’s armed forces. It wishes to retain and expand its 6,000 defence sector jobs; it wishes to see an extension of the lifeline to the Army Based Repair Organisation at Donnington in my constituency and a proper consultation process in respect of the DLO at Sapphire House in the Telford constituency. Many of my constituents travel across the parliamentary boundary to work at Sapphire House. It also wishes to see a commitment to provide the best defence training for the 21st century, which, in my humble view, can only be delivered view through the skills set provided and experienced at RAF Cosford. Overall, it wants a commitment from the Government to jobs in Shropshire and the west midlands.

11.22 am

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I will be brief, as I know that local Members will want to speak. I speak simply as the Chair of the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group to make one plea in relation to the Defence Logistics Organisation, the defence training review and the supply-chain initiative. There has been a distinct lack of
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consultation with the PCS as the trade union representing the staff in all the organisations.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) referred to Sapphire House in Telford and the potential loss of 400 jobs. The Ministry of Defence admits that the DLO co-location will save less than £8 million. A survey of the staff at Sapphire House was undertaken and 96 per cent. made it clear that they will not move. Their main argument, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is that the move to Bristol is unaffordable for them. Let us look at the salaries of staff working within the DLO: more than 60 per cent. of PCS members working at the DLO earn less than £16,000 a year. The average price of a two-bedroom property in Bath is about £285,000. It will be physically impossible for a number of the staff to take up any potential offer of a job under relocation. That will result in not only in discomfort for the individual families and a potential disturbance to their future well-being, but in a considerable loss of expertise to the service.

The DLO has attempted to recruit elsewhere, within the Bristol area. It attempted to recruit 12 commercial officers in Bristol, but failed to do so because the pay offer was too low. The challenge of recruiting to fill 4,000 posts in the new area will become insuperable. The various consultations that have taken place have not included the staff. On a number of occasions, the union has sought representations with management but it has been rebuffed. I ask the Minister to pass the message back through the DLO management structure that the staff need to be fully engaged in the discussions. At present, the trade unions have not been kept informed about emerging proposals on co-location; in many instances, management have simply refused to talk.

On the defence training review, I share the concerns that have been expressed across the House about privatisations going too far. PCS members have organised a 24-hour vigil today outside the Ministry of Defence and I invite hon. Members to attend to meet the staff involved. They are dedicated, committed professionals who want to provide a service in the future but who are now threatened with privatisation. As hon. Members have said, people from Cosford and St. Athan are involved and face the potential of considerable disturbance to their lives and families as a result of forced moves. I repeat, we will lose their professionalism—a professional capital that will be difficult to build up elsewhere. The savings involved appear to be relatively minor. In addition, we risk creating what is virtually a monopoly in awarding the contract.

Finally, I want to talk about Stafford. The in-house option “Do Different” has been determined, which I welcome on behalf of the PCS. However, no information has been provided on how or why Stafford was earmarked for closure; there has been inadequate consultation and discussion with staff, which has caused considerable concern. Many of those anxieties could be overcome not only by changing the decision-making processes within the Department but by ensuring that there is a free flow of information, adequate consultation and full involvement of what is, I repeat, a very dedicated team of staff in all these establishments, who have served this country well over the years.

11.26 am

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I start by congratulating my neighbour, my hon. Friend the
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Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), on securing this important debate. I am pleased that there has already been a measure of cross-party consensus on the issue of Cosford, to which I shall come later.

I congratulate the Minister on his new post, and I start by emphasising the long tradition of defence within Shropshire. It has an important role not only in terms of employment in Shropshire and the west midlands, but in the nation as a whole. The barracks at Copthorne are one of three regional divisional headquarters in the United Kingdom. The general there is responsible for 40,000 troops, and service personnel from Coventry in the east to the Irish sea, and from Cornwall to north Wales are commanded from Copthorne primarily because of its importance geographically. It is roughly in the centre of the country. I shall come shortly to why that is important for Cosford.

The people of Shropshire supply regiments in the armed forces; the Regular Army has the second battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment currently in Iraq; Territorial Army soldiers from Shropshire are serving in Iraq and in other commitments abroad at the moment. In these particularly difficult times, it is important for the Minister and incumbent on him to provide security for their families back home in terms of the job prospects that they have to look forward to. The more uncertainty there is because of the reorganisation of the defence establishment, the more difficult and challenging it is for our service personnel to perform their duties, and I hope the Minister will respond to that.

The RAF has an important role in Shropshire. Along with RAF Cosford, there is RAF Shawbury, which is an important base. It is not in my constituency but I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) will refer to it.

The subject of the debate is employment in the defence sector and it is important to recognise that we are going through a slightly more difficult time than we have done in recent years in relation to employment in the west midlands. In my constituency alone in the past 12 months, unemployment has increased by 35 per cent. admittedly from a very low base. In Ludlow, unemployment rose from 1.2 per cent. to 1.6 per cent. in the year to June, which is a matter of increasing concern. That is happening particularly in the manufacturing sector. Relatively few residents from the defence establishment live in my constituency; they may not have been affected thus far, but I anticipate that further job cuts will have an impact on my constituency and many others in Shropshire.

Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, given the astonishing increase in unemployment in his constituency that he has sketched out and given that four of the 15 constituencies with the highest rates of unemployment are in the city of Birmingham, the west midlands surely has the highest claim of any region, including Wales, to be looked on favourably by the Minister?

Mr. Dunne: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s welcome intervention. It reflects concern among representatives from across the west midlands about the threat of increased unemployment there. However, I would point out to him that there is a political connotation.

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My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin was very restrained in not seeking to score party political points, but there are 10 Labour-held seats in the west midlands in which Members have majorities of less than 3,000—roughly equivalent to the number of jobs at stake at Cosford—and it is a shame that not one of the Members representing those seats is in the Chamber to argue their case.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) speaks with considerable authority about unemployment in Birmingham, and I have much sympathy with that. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), who intervened earlier, for his work in drawing together cross-party consensus to try to secure jobs for those who were put out of work through the bankruptcy of British Leyland. [Interruption.] Excuse me. I meant the bankruptcy at Rover.

That brings me to the main topic, which is to argue that RAF Cosford should secure a position as a national centre of excellence in the defence training review—a decision that I understand is due to be made in October. I shall be accompanying my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin tomorrow to argue the case with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I thank my hon. Friend for securing that meeting, although the decision rests primarily with the Ministry of Defence. From separate conversations, I am aware that the Ministry is under considerable financial pressure; any help that the Treasury can give to relieve that pressure will, I am sure, be welcomed by the Minister. We will try to argue the Minister’s case for funding, particularly for Cosford.

The “Let’s Fly” campaign, spearheaded by Advantage West Midlands, to champion Cosford’s case, has presented a compelling case for Cosford to be selected under the defence training review. I am sure that the Minister will have received many submissions, not least from me, to argue Cosford’s case, but I shall focus on three aspects.

First, the skills inherent in the area are considerable. They include not only the aerospace and motor vehicle engineering skill base of the west midlands—with the possible exception of parts of the south-west, it is the centre of excellence in the UK—and there is no question but that it could provide an additional work force for recruitment that does not exist in the competitive market. We have heard that it is unlikely that many of those employed at Cosford would relocate in the event of the wrong decision being made—if Cosford does not secure its future.

I am told that there are 1,386 technical and manufacturing companies in the area immediately surrounding Cosford that employ 22,000 people in the aerospace industry, and there are another 300 related companies in the region. In addition, a strong and growing university capability can be built upon to provide for the training requirements of Cosford. Unfortunately, we do not have a university in Shropshire, although we have various tertiary education establishments that cover other sectors and there is the move to develop one that I suggest would merely increase the skills base.

The second aspect is the transport infrastructure, to which my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin referred. The county is not as well served as others in terms of the county town’s access to London. As it
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happens, Cosford is well served because of its proximity to the motorway network. One cannot get any closer than Cosford is to the M54; the M54 is within a few miles of the M6, the north-south trunk road that leads to the south, to the M42, to the M1 and to London. The railway passes within a few hundred yards of the entrance to Cosford; although the station is not served by a large number of passing trains, it is capable of coping with more regular trains. As has been said, discussions are ongoing with a couple of train companies to provide a more regular service.

The infrastructure is there; we need to encourage the operating companies to use it more. My hon. Friend has already touched upon the airport infrastructure. I endorse his comments about Birmingham being more suitable for any increase in air transport facilities than Wolverhampton business airport in my constituency. The latter is little more than a general aviation field, and is not suitable for significant expansion.

Mark Pritchard: Although I support the expansion of Birmingham airport rather than of Wolverhampton business airport, any increase in air traffic and in air routes should not result in planes flying low over the Shropshire hills, causing noise pollution and disrupting the Shropshire way, birdsong or animal welfare in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Mr. Dunne: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the fact that approximately 88 per cent. of the South Shropshire district council area, which is entirely within my constituency, is in an area of outstanding natural beauty. There is considerable concern about the recent rerouting of the flight path into Manchester airport and the consequent increase in air traffic that has resulted from the lower flight path ceiling. It is primarily civilian traffic, but some noise irritation also results from the helicopter training from RAF Shawbury. One reason for that is that the area in which they have chosen to do their training descents happens to be on the edge of an area of outstanding natural beauty that is also in my constituency. However, that is somewhat of a side issue in relation to the future development of RAF Cosford for training, as I understand that no flights will emanate from that site.

Thirdly, aside from the central transport infrastructure of the location, the general location of Cosford is important in relation to the nation as a whole. The nationwide review is there to provide a national centre of excellence. To site such a centre in the middle of the country means that it will be accessible to an immediate catchment of the 4 million people living within one hour of Cosford. The comparative figure at the competing site of St. Athan is approximately 1 million, so Cosford seems relevant, not least because of its accessibility to all parts of the country for military use and for recruitment and training. That should be welcomed by the Minister.

Finally, I should also add that Cosford lies just outside my constituency, but within Bridgnorth district council, which is predominantly within my constituency. I have had discussions, as has my hon. Friend, with the chief executive of the council and council leaders. I understand that the planning situation for RAF Cosford is that if it ceases to be used for military purposes, it will revert to
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its original use for agriculture. If the Department imagines that there is a honeypot to exploit from the redevelopment of the site, it should be under no doubt that that will be fiercely resisted by the local authorities in whose domain the planning decision would lie.

Daniel Kawczynski: Will my hon. Friend say in front of the Minister that he shares my view about the strength of feeling among local people in Shropshire? They feel passionately that they wish to stay in our county and do not wish to move down to Bristol. All of us who represent Shropshire are Salopians: people of Shropshire who feel proud of our county and want to stay rather than be forced to Bristol.

Mr. Dunne: I am grateful for a somewhat typical intervention championing the cause of Shropshire from my hon. Friend and neighbour—he does so with considerable aplomb and style at every opportunity.

There is no doubt that people who work and live in the surroundings of Cosford will want to stay there, particularly the non-service personnel. The service personnel obviously are used to moving around the world and country at the behest of their superior officers, but the civilian personnel—who make up approximately half the people employed at Cosford—would find it difficult to move for the reasons explained by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and would have no inclination to move.

Many people who work at Cosford live in the Bridgnorth area of my constituency and I have met many of them who have explained that they are concerned that the results of the proposed review will come out the wrong way. I urge the Minister to accept the arguments that have been put to him in favour of RAF Cosford. We look forward to the right result from this training review.

11.43 am

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate—he has done us a real service. From the range of Members present, we can see that this is an important issue across the west midlands and it is also nice to see a full set of Shropshire MPs here. I can speak in defence of jobs in the county as a Shropshire lad who was born and raised there.

I want to focus my brief remarks on three areas. First, I want to talk about ABRO, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for The Wrekin, who I was going to call my hon. Friend—indeed, I will do that. I also want to talk about Cosford and particularly Sapphire House and the Defence Logistics Organisation at Sapphire House. We have had a problematic time in Shropshire over the past 12 months. A number of announcements in relation to defence jobs have been very negative and, on Sapphire House, the Ministry of Defence is plain wrong.

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