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18 July 2006 : Column 32WH—continued

The organisation at Sapphire House has a large number of highly skilled people who procure equipment for our armed forces. It is easy to think that those people sit around, press buttons on computer screens and make default decisions assisted by a computer in relation to equipment provided for the armed forces. That view is completely wrong as those people are in regular contact
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with the front line and take telephone calls about the provision of equipment for the armed forces from people who are fighting wars on the front line. If we proceed with the proposal to move jobs out of my constituency to the Bath and Bristol area, we will lose that experience. There are generations of families who have worked at Sapphire House and the culture of supporting defence procurement has existed for more than 60 years in the wider Telford and Shropshire area. The loss of those jobs would be extremely negative for the Ministry of Defence and for the local economy.

Yesterday, I took a number of trade union colleagues and Councillor Keith Austin, the chair of the local defence support group, to see the Minister. The Minister suggested he would look at making the consultation period for the decision in relation to Sapphire House more flexible. I hope that there will be flexibility and that the Minister will seriously consider the representations made to him by the trade unions yesterday—PCS members put together a strong and coherent case. We need to preserve the skills and capacity at Sapphire House. There is a community and generational aspect to the support given to Sapphire House and there will be recruitment and selection problems if the facility moves to the Bath and Bristol area. Hon. Members have already discussed the difficulties in recruiting staff in that area.

There will be a significant problem given that, when the trade unions consulted their members—more than 400 at Sapphire House—97 per cent. said that they did not want to move to Bath or Bristol. There are a number of reasons for that and they include family ties and connections, house prices and income. The Ministry of Defence actually gets a very good deal out of Shropshire people. I do not want to talk down salaries, but the Government get a very cheap deal and good value for money in terms of the people who work at Sapphire House, who are committed to the organisation and to the Ministry of Defence and go the extra mile. Those people deserve to be listened to and the Minister needs to take the message to the Government that they need to think again about Sapphire House.

A number of the integrated project teams on that site are saying that they do not want to move. The drive for efficiency will not secure the savings that the Ministry of Defence require. We will see a fall in the quality of the service and that is particularly damaging at a time when our armed forces are heavily committed around the world.

The Minister decided to change his view on ABRO, which is in constituency of the hon. Member for The Wrekin, largely due to the pressure brought to bear by the trade unions, the defence support group and by Members from across the political spectrum, particularly the Shropshire five as we could call ourselves. We need to go forward now and ensure ABRO has not just a medium-term future, but a long-term future based at Donnington. A number of Amicus trade union representatives from ABRO came to see me at my surgery a couple of weeks ago. They are keen to work constructively with the Ministry of Defence and with management to make sure ABRO at Donnington is extremely efficient and indispensable. The trade union representatives are developing new opportunities for on-site training and are flexible in their approach.

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We would like to explore in more detail the proposals that the Government are considering in relation to a Govcom for ABRO and we need to go out and win more private sector work, which I know the work force are keen to do. When there is a surge in demand for armoured repairs because troops are in action, the only real place that can deal with it is ABRO. The people who work at ABRO, like those at Sapphire House, go the extra mile—if there is a job to be done, they make sure it is done. They do not watch the clock, they turn up outside their normal hours and do the work for our front-line troops. This means that when there is a surge in demand because our troops are under threat and they need armour to be repaired, they can rapidly go back out onto the front line. There is great commitment both in Sapphire House and ABRO to our front line, and we should thank all the civilian staff involved in that work for ensuring that our armed forces are supported professionally and will continue to be supported professionally as long as those jobs are retained in Shropshire, in Telford and in Wrekin.

I shall finish by speaking about Cosford, which is crucial for the long-term future of our manufacturing base in the west midlands. Cosford is ideally placed to be the defence training establishment for the UK. It is central geographically, as the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) said, and the transport links to the site are superb. The M54 runs probably one mile away from the site, and the rail link is virtually on the site. There is also a great history and heritage about the RAF at Cosford. With the aerospace museum and the new museum on the cold war based on the site, there is a real connection between modern-day training and the history and heritage of the RAF. That is significant when it comes to getting people through the training environment and ensuring that they understand the history of the RAF and the future dynamic of the RAF and other services.

Given the knowledge, skills and training base across the west midlands, we have an unsurpassed level of expertise. As part of the proposal, Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency, proposes to create a national manufacturing skills academy focused around the Cosford site. That is very important.

Mark Pritchard: Does the hon. Gentleman support me in supporting the idea of an in-house bid for the defence training review? Would he like to put that on the record?

David Wright: I am happy to put it on the record that I have always supported the idea of an in-house bid. I met PCS colleagues before the hon. Gentleman was elected in order to talk about an in-house bid. I supported that idea right through the process and was very disappointed when the MOD did not allow an in-house bid to be made. However, we are where we are, and it is crucial now that we compete with St. Athan and win the proposal. That said, I supported hon. Members who wanted an in-house option. I hope that they will be reassured by the fact that there is unity across this Chamber today and that we arguing for jobs in Shropshire to be protected. That is the key thing that we want to deliver today.

On the manufacturing sector, we have heard about the number of companies that are connected to RAF
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Cosford and about the strategy of Advantage West Midlands for that area—the western side of the conurbation, if I can put it like that. The technology corridor along the M54 is particularly significant. We have university sites in both Telford and Wolverhampton. We also have the excellent Telford college of arts and technology, which is the leading college in the UK, as shown by its recent Ofsted marks. It is keen to key in to training and skills in relation to Cosford and to connect companies in Telford to the defence training activity that it is hoped will take place at Cosford.

I am conscious that other hon. Members want to speak and that those on the Front Benches need time to respond to and wind up the debate, but I have three messages to give. They are about a long-term future for ABRO, the defence of jobs at Sapphire House, the DLO site in my constituency, and the proposals for Cosford being supported by the Minister to deliver long-term manufacturing job growth in the west midlands.

11.53 am

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood—it takes us back to the good old days of the European Scrutiny Committee. It is a great pleasure also to follow my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright). Like him, I congratulate most heartily my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on landing this debate at a critical time. Time now is short and I shall be brief. I would like to mention three subjects.

The first is RAF Shawbury, which is the jewel in the crown as far as Shropshire’s defence activity is concerned. It supports at least 1,500 jobs locally and injects £20 million into the local economy. It is immensely important locally, but it is also hugely important nationally and, potentially, internationally, as it is the seat of the defence helicopter flying school.

My comments to the Minister are simple. Ten days ago, I went on a simulated flight in the Bell simulator round most of north Shropshire and then did exactly the same thing in a real helicopter to compare the difference. As I said, Shawbury is immensely important locally, but a small number of people living close to the airfield are aggravated by noise, and it was most interesting to learn that 30 per cent. of day flying can be done in a simulator and 70 per cent. has to be done for real but at night it is half and half. It was clear from that exercise that people had to do the real thing. When we came to land, for instance, in the simulator, I always thought that we were about 30 ft higher than we actually were according to the simulator, so it has to be done for real and I stress that Shawbury has enormous support locally. Many farmers are very co-operative and offer landing sites, but there are two other points to be made.

First, a small number of people are very badly affected—the Slater family, for instance. I saw a predecessor of the Minister, who is now Lord Moonie, about that. At the time, there were discussions about insulation materials and there were NATO trials. Can the Minister tell us what new technologies are coming along? We welcome the helicopter training at Shawbury, but for a small
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number of people there is aggravation, although I take my hat off to the RAF authorities for the way in which they have liaised with parish councils and done their bit to mitigate complaints. However, the local question is: what is the form on new technologies coming along for low-frequency noise?

The other question, which is of national consequence, given the demands particularly in Iraq and the extreme demands for helicopter pilots in Afghanistan, is: what steps are the Government taking to speed up the training of helicopter pilots? The Minister gave me a reply last week, saying that it took 87 weeks to train a Royal Navy pilot, 71 an Army pilot and 110 for a Royal Air Force pilot. When I went to Shawbury, I glibly said, “Well, we used to stick Spitfire pilots in the air after 10 hours,” but I was told, “Yes, and a lot of them crashed.” The people there insisted that it was extremely difficult to shorten the training. However, given the demands on our forces, particularly with the increasing role in Afghanistan, it seems that there will inevitably be a shortage of pilots, so can the Minister explain what steps the Government are taking to increase the number of pilots and what part Shawbury will play? Obviously, Shawbury will play a key role and will welcome that.

Sadly, two soldiers from Tern Hill barracks in my constituency were recently killed in Iraq. They were killed by an explosive device hitting a Land Rover. I have asked the Minister questions on this issue and I understand that he is being cagey for operational reasons, but I understand that there are vehicles that will repel those explosive devices. Lord Drayson, in the other House, has stated that a vehicle called the Mamba was trialled in Bosnia and sold off because it was unreliable. I have read reports in the press, which I would like the Minister to verify, that actually the Mambas were sold to a private security firm and are now running down the most dangerous road in the world—the one between Baghdad airport and Baghdad town centre—carrying personnel of pretty high importance. I have also read a report that a Mamba has sustained two direct hits and all those in it got out alive. Therefore, can the Minister explain the Government’s position on putting our troops in extreme danger in soft-skin Land Rovers?

To take another country, Canada yesterday cancelled a major element of its FRES—future rapid effects system—programme. We are planning to spend £14 billion on FRES. That is a very grandiose expensive scheme down the road. Canada has decided that its troops need help now—that for operational reasons they need improved equipment—and it is diverting some of its FRES money now into improved equipment for deployment in Afghanistan. We have Alvis in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin. Could—

Mr. Jimmy Hood (in the Chair): Order. May I ask the hon. Gentleman to address the subject of this Adjournment debate, which is defence sector jobs in Shropshire and the west midlands?

Mr. Paterson: Absolutely, Mr. Hood. The vehicle that I am about to mention, called the Scarab, was made at Alvis in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin. My question to the Minister is: does he have plans to divert some FRES money into investment
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immediately to provide vehicles for our troops in Afghanistan or in Iraq that would be more resistant to explosive devices than the Land Rovers used currently and that could be made in the west midlands, where we have a long history of vehicle manufacture?

Finally, I will touch on the points that other hon. Members made on the importance of Cosford. I will not repeat them, but we must consider what has happened with Sapphire House, the British Sugar closure at Allscott and the recent comments by Professor Les Worrall. He said:

Given the experience of the benefits that Shawbury brings, we need a mixed economy. It is inevitable that there will be a reduction in the importance of agriculture and manufacturing. Therefore, the establishment of what is proposed at Cosford is of immense importance to the economy. I shall not repeat the comments that were made earlier—that would be invidious—but I stress that they have the support of all organisations across the county, and, I think, across the west midlands. I should like the Minister’s comments on what is going to happen at Cosford.

12 noon

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your wise guidance this afternoon, Mr. Hood. I shall try not to repeat the comments of other hon. Members, because I am sure that we all want to hear what the Minister has to say. However, I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on bringing this important subject before the House for debate today—as well as the hon. Members who have spoken, and those who have not had the opportunity.

I want to see whether I can come at the subject from a slightly different angle. As west midlands Members of Parliament we are all keen that the area should prosper. However, the job of the Ministry of Defence is to find the best service for the best price. I want to argue that the west midlands is in fact the best area to choose. The hon. Member for The Wrekin has described the west midlands as a centre that reinvents itself—and it does. It is the birthplace of industry, and that is particularly true of the area that the hon. Gentleman represents. It happens all the time. As industry develops and things move on, we take our knocks. We remain competitive by inventing new industry, such as environmental manufacturing, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That is an exciting development and I echo what he said about it.

I understand that the announcement about the Defence Logistics Organisation was made about two weeks ago. However, the MOD bought the premises in Bristol, a point that the hon. Member for The Wrekin raised in May 2005, before the consultation was concluded. I wonder what the Minister’s view is about that, given the relocation of staff who do not want to leave the west midlands and who would prefer to stay where they are. There may be a great skills shortage, resulting in a challenge to the Government in the provision of the service, because of the lack of people who want to move.

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Members on both sides of the Chamber have spoken about the defence training review and have raised the question whether privatisation has gone a step too far. Although I am a Liberal I am not a great fan of privatisation, and I should also be interested to know from the Minister why an in-house bid was not considered feasible. The justification was that outside expertise would be required, but how did the Government know that the expertise was not available if no in-house bid could be made?

On the question of the appropriateness of Cosford as a site for the defence training review, hon. Members on both sides have talked about the infrastructure, the universities, and the existing skills base and supply chain. I take issue with comments by Conservative Members on only one issue, in relation to the second runway at Birmingham International airport. I certainly do not consider that Wolverhampton Business airport would be at all appropriate. However, there is no need for a second runway at Birmingham International airport. It can expand with the lengthening of the main runway, and with other proposals that are being made as part of the plan there is no necessity for the second runway.

I should be grateful if the Minister would take on board the comments of hon. Members on both sides of the House about the suitability of Cosford.

Chris Bryant: Is the hon. Lady actually saying that she has set out the official Liberal Democrat position, and has cleared it with all her Liberal Democrat colleagues in the south-west of England—and, indeed, Wales—who would benefit if the defence training review went to Wales? Is she seriously saying that their view is that the review must go to Cosford?

Lorely Burt: The hon. Gentleman is implying that there must be exclusivity and that the defence training review must go either to one area or another. As I understand matters, a number of sites are being considered.

Chris Bryant: Two.

Lorely Burt: Since there are two sites available I am merely putting the case for Cosford. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, it is up to the Ministry of Defence to decide which is the best place. However, Cosford is uniquely placed because of its educational and communications infrastructure, its skills and its supply chain to fulfil the requirements of the Ministry of Defence.

12.07 pm

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood. Before I turn to the debate, I want to say that I am mindful of the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and your right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and I shall try hard to resist the temptation to come and hug you.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom Watson): That is a very wise move.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (in the Chair): You have given yourself good advice.

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