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I anticipate that my right hon. Friend will tell me that the Chinook, Sea King and Lynx platforms have a limited life span, and that future rotary wing maintenance requirements will become the responsibility of the manufacturer, due to a change in the purchasing policy at the MOD. But the very fact
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that the responsibility lies with the manufacturer, whose sole objective is to produce new helicopters, means that it will be forced to subcontract much if not all of that maintenance work. It is my understanding that Vector Aerospace would aim to secure such contracts for Almondbank. The question must be: why cannot DARA secure that work in the public sector? If Vector has investment plans that will facilitate that development, they have not been made clear to the trade unions in the ongoing negotiations. If the Minister is aware of Vector’s investment plans, will he tell the House a little about them tonight?

Colleagues might think me psychic, but I am also sure that when the Minister replies he will say that privatisation will give DARA more of an opportunity to secure commercial work, thus giving the company a greater degree of stability. But DARA already has a private sector order book. Again, we must ask why the existing commercial order book cannot be “grown” while remaining in the public sector. I hope that the Minister will be able to address that.

Let me give some of the details of the trade union proposals. The unions want a system of mobile servicing parties to be introduced. The parties would be based at our main operating bases, and would provide service support for aircraft and components. The proposed arrangements would reduce downtime, and as a result would increase the availability of aircraft. The unions believe that that approach has a proven track record at ABRO, where in-barracks support arrangements currently apply to the ground vehicle fleet. However, it is important to remember that if ownership leaves the MOD, with the loss of ownership will go a loss of influence and control. The new owners of the operation will make the decisions.

A further benefit of the union’s proposals is that inexperienced servicemen can work alongside experienced and seasoned craft personnel, and learn on the job as they are coached. The unions see no reason why that “man in a van” approach, which is successful elsewhere, could not be equally successful at DARA. They also propose the establishment of a dedicated DARA liaison representative at each main operating base to act as a contact point for the squadrons and to co-ordinate mobile servicing parties, ensuring that all expectations and demands are met. They suggest that service personnel should be reintegrated at centres of excellence, in this case Almondbank and Fleetlands. That in itself would build stronger relationships between DARA and its main customer, and would make possible a knowledge transfer that could be taken to the front line.

I suppose that it would not be possible to have a debate of this type without mentioning the security of service to our armed forces, especially when the United Kingdom helicopter fleet is playing such a vital role in supplying our troops. I hope the Minister accepts that it is not inappropriate to ask whether the time is right for such a move. With a fleet of over 300 helicopters serving in operations all over the world and given the commitment made in 2005 to invest £3 billion in the helicopter fleet over 10 years, it is not unreasonable to ask if that could be better achieved within the MOD. Nothing in my mind or in my words suggests that MOD Ministers will not consider fully the effect on the armed forces and make a decision that is in their best
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interests—I know that they will—but I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Minister that it is legitimate to ask whether this is the right time.

No one is claiming that the union’s proposals are perfect, or indeed that Vector’s proposals are all bad. However, it has taken the MOD years to reach preferred-bidder status with Vector Aerospace, and as the union’s proposals have only been with the MOD for a matter of weeks, it is questionable whether there has been enough time for them to be fully evaluated. Will the Minister undertake to make representations to his colleagues to ensure that trade union proposals focusing on retaining the skills based at Almondbank in the public sector will be given all due consideration? If the Department experiences difficulties, I ask for them to be discussed constructively with the unions in a way that gives them an opportunity to address the points that are made.

Each day that passes without a decision adds to the uncertainty of the work force, and increases the likelihood that staff will look elsewhere. We are talking about vital skills, not jobs that we can get off the shelf. If we lose those skills, DARA will lose its effectiveness, and also its attractiveness to both the public and the private sector. Then we will be in serious difficulties.

South Perthshire is not a highly skilled area, and it certainly would not be possible to replace staff quickly if there is truth in the report that current employees are already looking for other work in case the business is sold. The sale could therefore result in an outflow of highly skilled staff, which would in turn destabilise the business. I ask the Minister to ensure that that too is taken into account in his Department’s considerations.

Certainly in my constituency, DARA is one of the few large-scale employers left, thanks in no small part to the—currently invisible—Conservative party. We are, in some senses, lucky not to be talking about closure, and instead to be discussing in what sector and in what form Almondbank will exist in the future.

The only point I have yet to make is to re-issue my invitation to the Secretary of State for Defence and Baroness Taylor to visit Almondbank, but in light of yesterday’s announcement at Scottish questions I no longer have to do that. However, I do not want to leave out my right hon. Friend the Minister, so I extend an invitation to him to come to Almondbank, and I also assure him that he is always welcome in my constituency. If he wishes to come to Scotland with Baroness Taylor tomorrow, on the birthday of Robert Burns, I am sure that we will make him feel very welcome.

I hope the Minister can answer the points raised and shed some light on his Department’s current thinking on the Defence Aviation Repair Agency. As I have said, the key is to ensure that the unions’ proposals are fully considered—and, indeed, responded to. Privatisation is no longer the only option, but I am aware that it remains an option. If there is any way that DARA can be kept within the Ministry of Defence while remaining a viable business, I shall certainly support that. The Minister will also have the support of the work force and the unions; I can assure the House of that.

5.21 pm

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) on securing this debate,
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which is important for both our constituencies. Although DARA Almondbank is in his constituency, the vast majority of its work force are my constituents from the city of Perth, and it is located less than two miles across our boundary. I share the concerns of the work force and the joint trade unions about the future of this first-class facility. I have had several meetings with local trade unions, and I have spoken with employees and I have met with the management. There is a genuine, general concern across Perthshire about the fate of DARA Almondbank.

My colleague, Roseanna Cunningham, the MSP for Perth, had a similar debate in the Scottish Parliament last week, in which she attracted cross-party support for the plight of DARA Almondbank. I also understand that the First Minister of Scotland is due to visit in the next few weeks, and there will, of course, be an important visit tomorrow by Baroness Taylor. I also extend an invitation to the Minister: he should come to Perthshire on Burns’ day as he would have a fantastic time—but he is probably too busy.

All of this interest is because DARA Almondbank is vital to the Perthshire economy. In 2006, it was reckoned that it accounted for about 6.4 per cent. of the total employment in the area, and that the Defence Aviation Repair Agency’s presence contributed about £38.4 million to the local economy of Perth and Kinross. Perth and Kinross council has had an ongoing watching brief of DARA Almondbank over the past 10 years, and it has seen the extent of its contribution and how key a resource it is for the area.

The type of jobs it provides is an important aspect of that. Like much of rural Scotland, Perthshire is overly dependent on tourism. I welcome tourism—it is a great industry for my constituency—but it is notoriously low paid and low skilled. The jobs at DARA Almondbank are high skilled and high value—the kind of jobs we do not see too often in Perthshire. It is essential that we hold on to them, and develop them and the skills associated with them, so that we can take more young people into those high-skilled, high-value jobs.

Disappointingly, the Ministry of Defence has said that there are only two options for DARA Almondbank: privatisation or a managed decline. That suggests a poverty of imagination. The unions and the work force have refused to accept that they are the only two options, and they have put forward a compelling case for DARA Almondbank to be retained in the public sector. I welcome the fact that we are not debating the possible closure of DARA Almondbank; I respect the fact that the facility is to be saved, but what we as local Members want is the best possible outcome for it. We do not want it just to be retained and to remain; we want it to be developed, and to ensure that it goes from strength to strength and wins more of the awards that it is famous for winning, and to develop its skills. That requires our attention within the public sector. I was quite encouraged yesterday when the Secretary of State for Scotland told me during Scottish questions that he would be open to “all” proposals.

I still hope, even at this late stage, that the joint trade unions’ proposals will secure that fair wind, because their suggestion is truly imaginative. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire touched on some of the things that they are offering. Among them are: the creation of mobile repair teams to service helicopters at
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bases or at the front line; a change in funding to contracting for capability; and integrating service personnel into the business.

The joint trade unions have been to Westminster and have met the Minister to discuss the proposals. I understand that they were not particularly encouraged by what he had to say. Perhaps the intervention by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire in this debate and the emphasis that has been put on DARA will mean that the Minister will re-examine the proposals and give them a bit more of a fair wind.

We know that the preferred bidder for DARA Almondbank is Vector Aerospace. I do not share the confidence of the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire in that company. It is a small Canadian outfit, and if it acquired DARA Almondbank, its whole output would be doubled. That is how small Vector Aerospace is. It has no track record in UK defence infrastructure, and I have concerns about its ability to run DARA Almondbank effectively.

Gordon Banks: Lots of figures are bandied about concerning what effect taking over DARA Almondbank would have on the size of Vector Aerospace. The most reliable that I have is that doing so would increase Vector Aerospace as an organisation by a third, and not by 200 per cent.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s correction. It still concerns me that Vector Aerospace would almost become dependent on the output of DARA Almondbank. Several questions remain. If this is not successful, what happens to the skilled jobs and to the DARA Almondbank facility? Will the jobs be lost? Will this be the end of an award-winning, first-class facility? We need to be reassured that the jobs will be safe.

I took some comfort yesterday from Baroness Taylor’s comment that she would not permit the ongoing sale to a third party. That gives a measure of reassurance to some of the Almondbank work force, but it would remain cold comfort if the whole operation fails. That question needs to be addressed, given the concern that we have about all this.

I am grateful for the fact that Baroness Taylor will be visiting DARA Almondbank on Friday. I know that she will enjoy her trip, because she will meet a skilled work force who are totally committed and dedicated. They have provided such an excellent service to front-line defence capabilities and to so many operations in the course of the past 10 years. I only hope that when she speaks to the work force she will listen to their real concerns and to the compelling case to retain DARA in the public sector.

5.27 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) on securing this debate. He is assiduous in pursuing local issues on behalf of his constituents, and he has rightly been very active in this matter on the future of the Defence Aviation Repair Agency, and in particular Almondbank. He is, of course, joined in his concerns by
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the trade unions, acting on behalf of DARA’s employees, and they, as well as he, have raised issues over time. As he has said, they have put together alternative proposals for consideration at the invitation of Lord Drayson. I have read the trade unions’ proposals. Baroness Taylor has gone through the proposals in detail, as has the Secretary of State for Defence. As my hon. Friend knows, we have also talked to him and listened to his advice, ideas and representations.

We have two guiding principles in examining DARA’s future, which override all other considerations. I hope that the House and my hon. Friend will agree that those principles are the priorities that should steer our decisions. First and foremost are the interests of our armed forces, who are involved in difficult and dangerous operations on our behalf and are dependent on the equipment—in this case helicopters—that we supply them with for their effectiveness and safety. We will do nothing that does not protect and potentially enhance our ability to supply our forces effectively now and in the future.

Our second guiding principle is securing the skills that we have at DARA. Short-term financial considerations are of little or no value. In rotary wing maintenance, as elsewhere, we need a sustainable skill base in the UK that is capable of meeting our needs over the long term as well as providing quality jobs in constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend. Those principles underlie the defence industrial strategy. They are widely supported in the House, and by the trade union movement, too. Indeed, the only people who oppose the principles of the strategy are the free market zealots who believe that the maintenance of industrial capabilities in defence is not important.

Historically, DARA’s role has been to provide depth maintenance, to repair and to overhaul the fixed-wing aircraft of the RAF and the helicopters of all three services. In recent years, logistical reform has led to the migration of depth repair to our partners in industry, including some at the main operating bases. Such changes already happen. Partnering is working particularly well in the maintenance of our fast jet fleets, both Tornado and Harrier. There are 11 more Harrier aircraft available to the front line at any one time, as they spend less time in depth maintenance because of the partnering arrangements that we have managed to agree to cover that work. The time spent in depth maintenance is reduced by 59 per cent., allowing us greater capability on the front line.

As a result of those developments, DARA has progressively become less viable. Its businesses for fast jets and engines have already closed. Its business in Wales, having lost its fast jet work, now supports only the VC10. DARA’s helicopter repair business is based at Fleetlands, Hampshire and the associated helicopter components business is based at Almondbank. The vast majority of its work is to support the Chinook helicopters, as a subcontractor for Boeing, and to support Sea King helicopters, which it currently undertakes directly for the MOD although it will soon be a subcontractor for AgustaWestland.

Support for new helicopter platforms such as Merlin and Apache is provided by the manufacturer, which provides through-life support because of its inherent knowledge of the platforms’ design and military capabilities. As our equipment becomes more complex,
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that is an inevitable trend. We will need depth maintenance to be provided by the original manufacturer, as it knows the detail of the equipment that it supplies.

On the basis of its defence work load alone, we cannot see how DARA’s rotary wing business can remain viable beyond the out-of-service date of the Sea King helicopter. In sharp contrast to our industrial partners, DARA holds very little intellectual property or design capability. However, as a subcontractor, it possesses technical know-how and, as my hon. Friend said, a highly skilled work force who are extremely capable and committed to supporting operations. We must ensure that that capability endures. That is what we are about.

So, since late 2005, we have been examining options for the future of these businesses, aiming at a solution that best preserves the capability to support the armed forces and secures the long-term employment of the work force. We looked at both sale and in-house options. It is not true, as some assert, that Vector Aerospace was the only interested bidder: in fact, we received expressions of interest from more than 20 bidders, out of which three companies were selected as provisional preferred bidders.

As the process continued, however, Vector Aerospace demonstrated that it was best placed to deliver the capability that our armed forces require, and to provide longevity of employment to the work force. Thus, in July 2007, I announced that Vector Aerospace was the preferred bidder for the rotary wing and component businesses.

My hon. Friend asked about consultation with the trade unions. I can tell him that, throughout the period since 2005, we have been in both formal and informal consultation with them. Yes, they have raised concerns, but it is their job to do so. My hon. Friend was right to say that the unions have produced their own report, but I would not like the House to get the impression that we have not had consultations with them throughout the period. Moreover, Baroness Taylor is prepared to continue to talk to the trade union movement into the future.

Despite its relatively small presence in the UK, Vector Aerospace has considerable defence experience, especially in north America, where it provides rotary wing maintenance to the US military. Through its UK subsidiary, Sigma, it already services the MOD’s VC10 Conway and Hercules engines, and it is seeking to broaden its footprint. There are clear indications that there will be future growth in this area, and Vector Aerospace has already actively made the necessary approaches to secure further MOD engine business for its UK base.

There is tacit but substantial support from Boeing and AgustaWestland that Vector Aerospace would be a key link in their performance under future contracting arrangements. There are therefore real prospects for investment and for winning future business through commercial and military work.

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