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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 7 May 2008

[Hugh Bayley in the Chair]

RAF Aldergrove

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watts.]

9.30 am

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Bayley. I know that it is a beautiful morning outside; nevertheless, we have our duties to do. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to introduce this important debate.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter that is causing grave concern and anger in my constituency, namely the proposed cutbacks at RAF Aldergrove. If they are not changed, the proposals will have a devastating impact on many people in my constituency who rely upon the base as a means of providing much-needed employment. Many of those people, who have worked diligently and loyally there for many years through difficult and dangerous times, are civilian staff, for whom the prospect of relocating somewhere else in the UK is obviously not an option.

As I shall explain, the people whom I represent in the Antrim area feel let down by Her Majesty’s Government, having loyally supported the presence of Royal Air Force military personnel in their community for almost a century, since before there was even an RAF base there. Sadly for them, the Ministry of Defence has repaid that loyal support, offered so freely by the people of Antrim, by ushering in proposals that will add many of them to the unemployment statistics.

In common with those affected, I was absolutely shocked to learn the news through the media, rather than from the Minister or the military authorities. I therefore wish to oppose strenuously the decision to remove so many RAF personnel from my constituency and to expose the disgraceful and uncaring manner in which the proposal was announced. Absolutely no consideration was granted to a community that would feel decimated by the decision, which was taken without consultation. Now, they are rightly frustrated and angry at what they feel to be an abuse of parliamentary procedure and of common courtesy to elected representatives, whether myself as the Member of Parliament for South Antrim or Antrim borough council, which over the years has established an historic and fruitful bond with the RAF. In the past when the Government sought to impose such cutbacks, consultation and relief efforts for local communities were at least attempted. It seems that that is not the case for the people whom I represent. To many of my constituents, and to many people beyond the base’s immediate Antrim area, the cavalier manner in which the MOD made the announcement is galling. I shall provide some more detail on that, but first it is appropriate to put on record again the long and proud association that my constituency has had with the RAF at the Aldergrove site.

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RAF Aldergrove is situated some 18 miles north-west of Belfast and adjoins Belfast International airport. In local Ulster parlance, the international airport is almost universally referred to simply as “Aldergrove”, which is the name of the surrounding area. That reflects the fact that the RAF base existed long before the commercial civilian airport. The station shares the Aldergrove runways but has its own separate facilities and helipad.

RAF Aldergrove first opened in 1918, before there was even a Royal Air Force, but it was not designated an operational RAF station until 1925. Its location made it a vital station for RAF Coastal Command during the battle of the Atlantic in the second world war. From the base, long-range reconnaissance aircraft were able to patrol the eastern Atlantic, searching for and destroying German U-boats. Local people are extremely proud of the base’s history and the front-line role that it had in the fight against fascism during the second world war.

Aldergrove was designated a dispersal airfield for the RAF’s V-bomber force in the 1950s and was included in a reduced list of 26 airfields in 1962. In 1968, a maintenance unit, No. 23 MU, was established at Aldergrove for the F-4 Phantoms in the RAF’s service, with 116 aircraft passing through on their way to front-line service. From 1991 until its disbandment in 2002, as part of the first MOD cutbacks to affect the base adversely, 272 Squadron operated Puma and Wessex helicopters from Aldergrove.

Aldergrove is currently home to a mixed force of 230 Squadron’s helicopters, which operate across the Province in support of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. One of the base’s main functions has been to provide designated air and aviation capabilities to support the police service in the maintenance of public order. When Northern Ireland descended into chaos in the early 1970s, it was via RAF Aldergrove that many of the much-needed military personnel arrived to prevent the escalation of the bloodshed and the complete collapse of society in the Province.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Although many people welcome the fact that a bit of normality is returning to Northern Ireland, does my hon. Friend agree that, in parts of south Armagh, the police say that there are still occasions when it is safe to go in only by helicopter? If the facility at Aldergrove is removed, it could impair police operations, particularly against the fuel laundering mafia that seems to have taken over south Armagh and is using semi-paramilitary tactics.

Dr. McCrea: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I certainly agree that the service that has been given to the police service through RAF Aldergrove has provided vital assistance against attacks and possible attacks from the people whom he identifies.

The proposal to relocate 230 Squadron will have a far-reaching and serious impact upon Northern Ireland. It is the only Northern Ireland-based squadron of the RAF. It was part of the RAF in Germany, operating the Puma HC1 there from 1980. Following the draw-down at the end of the cold war, the squadron was disbanded. As with many of the MOD’s decisions, the short-term advantages of saving money were outweighed by longer-term considerations of the defence of the realm, and the decision had to be reversed. The squadron re-formed at Aldergrove in early May 1992, again with the Puma HC1.

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Today, 230 Squadron operates 18 Pumas. Those aircraft are rotated with 33 Squadron’s 15 Pumas to even out flight hours among the fleet—Northern Ireland-based helicopters have a much higher operational tempo. In 230 Squadron’s service, the main role of the fleet is tactical support for the security forces, mostly the British Army, to patrol either points or one of the military bases dotted around Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend made that point. A well travelled route for the Pumas, as well as for visiting Chinooks, is to the military base at Ballykinler in South Down. The squadron is well experienced in night flying, with almost a third of flights undertaken after dark.

The wide range of activities engaged in by 230 Squadron has entailed the engagement of a significant number of civilians in site-specific activities. It is those people who will be the most adversely affected by the MOD’s decision to move the squadron from its home in Aldergrove to RAF Benson. The move will result in 140 of the 420 civilian staff currently employed at Aldergrove being made redundant. The Minister has said in his correspondence with me that the Government have a long-term commitment to basing in Northern Ireland. That is not reflected in the decision to relocate 230 Squadron from its home in Ulster.

I welcome the fact that the MOD has said that 38 Engineer Regiment will be relocated, although we must remember that it is removing the regiment from another historic base in Antrim, the Massereene base. Even the MOD has acknowledged that that will not be enough to save the valuable jobs at Aldergrove that will be affected by the decision to withdraw 230 Squadron. We are facing the real prospect of 140 of my constituents losing their means of employment and support for their families because of this regrettable decision.

When I hear about such decisions, I seriously begin to wonder whether the MOD has any grasp whatsoever of the reality outside Whitehall. This country is engaged in two wars: we are bogged down in Iraq, where our troops are largely confined to barracks, and we are overstretched in Afghanistan, where, many contend, the lack of proper military equipment is costing the lives of many of our dedicated, heroic troops. Couple that situation with other military commitments elsewhere in the world and it becomes abundantly clear that our defence capability is overstretched and that we could be beyond breaking point.

How does the MOD respond to such a situation? By introducing a programme of sweeping cuts in which RAF Aldergrove is merely the latest victim in a long line of casualties. No doubt the Government will assert that defence spending is rising, but the clear and obvious truth is that it is inadequate to meet the challenges that we face. I agree wholeheartedly that soldiers who patrol dangerous streets in Helmand province must be assured of proper body armour and that failure to provide the best would be a shocking reality.

Some people might foolishly say that those who will lose their job or are otherwise affected by the RAF Aldergrove decision are only civilian staff, but the truth is that that devoted staff are important to performing a vital function at a strategic base of eminent value to the defence of this country in these dangerous times. The fact that the MOD considers them to be expendable is
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exactly the sort of slipshod and short-term thinking that saw 230 Squadron abolished and then re-formed in the early 1990s, because it was later proven to be a valuable necessity. I have no doubt that the MOD will live to regret the decision on RAF Aldergrove if it is not reversed now.

Our civilian staff perform a vital function in the defence of the realm, and to cast 140 of them aside in this manner is extreme folly. Dismissing 140 civilian staff is just as threatening to the defence of our country as dismissing 140 front-line soldiers, airmen or sailors. Our civilian staff provide the necessary behind-the-scenes back-up to allow our hard-pressed armed forces to carry out their duties. Among the 140 people who will lose their livelihoods as a consequence of the decision is an enormous wealth of talent and expertise that has been given over to defence of the United Kingdom. Sadly, those people are now to be treated shabbily by their employer, the Government Department charged with our protection.

I am pleased that the Government have indicated that there were no Northern Ireland-related political reasons for the decision. For too long, elected representatives and the people of Northern Ireland witnessed compliant Governments negotiate over the defence of the law-abiding people of Ulster with the representatives of brutal and murderous terrorism. Thankfully, in Northern Ireland, because people who once espoused the use of politically motivated violence have been made to commit to the rule of law and support for the institutions of the British state, the days of our Government negotiating behind our backs with those who want to remove us from our place of citizenship inside the UK have been ended.

Seemingly there is nothing so glamorous in the reasoning behind this decision. Instead, my constituents find themselves merely the latest victims of Ministry-inspired cuts. However, I would like the Minister to confirm that political considerations had nothing to do with the announcement. The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland from both main political traditions have grown sick and tired of the culture of side deals that the Government have operated since coming to power in 1997, particularly in the context of their kid-glove treatment of republicans. The Minister must detail whether there was any contact with any political party in the Province regarding this matter prior to the announcement’s being made.

For a good example of how the announcement has been spun for political purposes, one need look no further than the comments of my immediate predecessor as the Member of Parliament for South Antrim, Mr. Burnside. When the news first broke, he became hot under the collar and demanded to know why the First Minister of Northern Ireland—my party leader—had not been aware of the situation. Mr. Burnside made all sorts of party political comments. Quite why a member of the pro-Belfast agreement Ulster Unionist party believed himself to be on safe ground when denouncing military cuts, I do not know. After all, his was the party which, through its support for the joint declaration, presided over the demise of the three home battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment. It was only through the intervention of the Democratic Unionist party that those who were affected by that disgraceful decision were guaranteed an adequate redundancy package. His
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was the party that presided over and supported the demise of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the massive reduction in police numbers that followed from it via the insidious Patten report.

On issues of national defence and safeguarding local communities, neither Mr. Burnside nor his party has a leg to stand on. Besides, this issue is far too important to be dragged into the mire by a defeated candidate seeking to make cheap political headlines to re-establish himself as a media presence in the constituency that he served so poorly during his time as its MP.

Sammy Wilson: Mr. Burnside accused the First Minister of not fighting hard enough, but does my hon. Friend share my feelings about how the announcement was made? Rather than giving prior notice or even an opportunity for discussion in the House, the Government issued a written statement. That is not how such a far-reaching decision should have been announced.

Dr. McCrea: I thank my hon. Friend for intervening once again. In fact, in many ways, that goes to the very heart of the problem, which is not only about 140 people losing their jobs but about 100 years of history and 100 years of support from the south Antrim community. Overnight, a decision to remove 1,100 people from my constituency was announced. Hon. Members should remember that it is not only the RAF personnel based at RAF Aldergrove who are affected, but their families as well. My constituency is losing 1,100 people who are active in the community and who give economic advantage to it.

The manner in which the announcement was made—my hon. Friend must have been reading my notes—leaves much to be desired. The story of the cuts hit local news and media outlets on Thursday 24 April. I happen to be the MP for the constituency most affected by the decision, but I heard about it on a morning news programme that was broadcast before the letter had been received and the written statement delivered.

There had been absolutely no consultation with those whose lives and incomes will be affected by the decision, and no consultation with the Member of Parliament for the area or the borough council, which has had a wonderful relationship and bond with the RAF at the Aldergrove base over 100 years. What sort of way is that to treat people? The first time many of my constituents heard about the decision was when they were driving to work. Frankly, it is a disgraceful state of affairs when people who have loyally served the Crown and their country and a community that has welcomed the RAF and other military units into their homes and hearts are treated in such a contemptible fashion by the MOD.

I want to place on the record the profound sense of hurt and offence caused by the MOD’s handling of the issue. Many people in the Antrim area feel aggrieved to have been treated in such an offhand manner by the Ministry. On their behalf, I am calling for an apology from the Minister today. It is incumbent on him also to inform us what protocols exist in the Ministry of Defence on making such announcements.

Many people were left flabbergasted by the manner in which the announcement was made. My constituents deserve—nay, demand—to know the Ministry’s procedures for disseminating information about matters of such public interest. What are the protocols for making
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important announcements such as this, which, if they are followed and adhered to, will have a serious impact on people's lives? It is hard to believe or to accept that the standard procedure for making major announcements such as this is to time them to appear in the press and on the airwaves and television on the day on which the local Member of Parliament receives his or her first item of correspondence about the matter from the Ministry, or that the removal of 1,100 people from a constituency should be announced in a written statement to the House, without prior notice and without discussing such an important matter with the local Member of Parliament.

The Royal Air Force operates an RAF community support website—rafcom.co.uk—but the people to whom I have spoken and who will lose their livelihoods as a result of this decision will need a little more than a website to help them out of the predicament into which the MOD has dropped them. They are now going to talk to the unions.

Let me make it perfectly clear that I do not accept this decision, which is foolish and will be regretted later down the line if it is not corrected now. I beg the Government to change their decision. My constituents are totally committed to RAF Aldergrove.

When examining the resources available at RAF Benson and RAF Aldergrove, it seems to me that Aldergrove is better equipped to meet the requirements being assigned to Benson. Why is there to be no outsourcing of work and responsibility from other stations to the well equipped Aldergrove? The comparative superiority of Aldergrove over Benson raises serious questions about the Government's motives. What we have before us are proposals to force through at Aldergrove in my constituency cutbacks that will cost 140 jobs in the Antrim area and lead to the removal of 1,100 RAF personnel and family members from the council area.

Is it possible that the fact that people of South Antrim do not have the opportunity to punish the Government at the polls for forcing through a damaging programme of job losses may have been a consideration in MOD thinking? I sincerely hope not, because that would be disgraceful. I trust that the Minister is in a position to provide hon. Members with a detailed explanation of the logic behind the decision. At the very least, my constituents deserve to know the Government’s motivation and logic for deciding to make 140 of them unemployed. I am deeply disturbed by this announcement, and I strongly urge the Government to re-examine it before proceeding.

During the coming days and weeks, people in my South Antrim constituency will be in a position to see for themselves just how seriously the Ministry of Defence takes its obligations to the communities in which it operates and from which its staff are drawn. It is a position that neither I, as their Member of Parliament, nor they, as loyal people who have faithfully supported the military’s role in Northern Ireland for many years, wanted to be in. The Government have said that they intend, via headquarters in Northern Ireland, to consult the trade unions on what the Government call “the management of civilian reductions”, which to the layman means job losses.

I urge the Government not only to consult, but to reconsider their initial announcement. The MOD must engage positively to ensure that necessary arrangements
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are put in place to help those most adversely affected by this decision, if the Ministry of Defence refuses to change course and the decision is implemented. It is essential that the MOD puts in place a comprehensive package of relief, not only by way of compensation and redundancy arrangements, but with a programme of reskilling to enable people to gain access to the employment market after their service at Aldergrove comes to an end. Given the loyal dedication and proud service given by the civilian staff and the faithful and enduring support offered by my constituents in Antrim, that is the bare minimum required of the Ministry of Defence.

We must bear in mind that many of those civilians operated during the years of trouble. They faced great personal danger and even a threat to their lives, but in a written announcement, their future is being cast aside and their jobs are being put on the heap.

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