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7 May 2008 : Column 255WH—continued

If I were to lose 1,100 people from my constituency, it would also have an impact on schools and hospitals and other health services. GPs and hospitals might welcome having fewer patients, but I am sure that the local school would suffer, as there would be a direct impact on class sizes—and perhaps on the school’s critical mass. I do not know what assessment has been made of the impact on schools and whether extra support will be
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provided to ensure that they do not fall below critical educational levels. If classes sizes are reduced to the point that they become too small, it will have an impact on the quality of learning. We need wider consideration to be given to that point.

I am grateful to an Alliance council member from the constituency of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), Councillor Alan Lawther, who briefed me yesterday on some of the local aspects of the issue. He was full of praise for the work done at RAF Aldergrove. He said:

across the spectrum, and not only from one part of society—

Indeed, his daughter took part in a recent trip to RAF Aldergrove, and she enjoyed seeing the aircraft and the base. I understand that science classes and other lessons take place in Aldergrove, which is part of the wider learning remit of schools. That, too, will be lost if community use does not continue. Will more formal programmes be established to ensure that those good community links are not lost? I understand that the local mountain rescue service operates from Aldergrove. What impact will the closure have in that respect?

I am disappointed to hear about the lack of consultation. I hope that it is not because none of the three main parties are represented in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister takes the opportunity this morning to put some of those things right.

10.28 am

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I, too, am delighted to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley.

I salute the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) for securing the debate, and for doing so so swiftly after the decision was announced. That is some achievement. I am also pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman has been making common cause with my great friend David Burnside—it is good to see local politicians working together. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s constituents will appreciate the fact that he has raised the issue in the House and brought it to the attention of a wider audience.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the world of the United Kingdom. I hope that he will forgive me for saying so, but that he and his colleagues are somehow being singled out for such adverse treatment is news to me. Welcome also to the world of defence closures, which we on the mainland have had to live with for a long time. What he and his colleagues and many of us called the troubles over the past 30 or 40 years ensured that military facilities remained in Northern Ireland that might otherwise have closed earlier. He should therefore regard himself not as singled out, but very much part of the United Kingdom.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the manner of the announcement is very much to be regretted, and I am sure the Minister will respond to that concern. It is important that Members of Parliament are consulted in advance of decisions. There is a well rehearsed facility by which Members are taken to one side and briefed privately in advance, particularly when an announcement
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will affect a large number of jobs in their constituency. I add my voice to those of others, including the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), who have said that the Minister owes the hon. Member for South Antrim an explanation in that regard.

Today’s debate brings home to us the fact that the decision effectively marks the end of 90 years of RAF presence in Northern Ireland. I do not want to let the event go by without recording my own tribute to the RAF, a service with which I am associated, as the Minister knows, having been commissioned in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, Britain’s last hope—in my case, not that of the rest of the RAFVR. All I would add to the history set out by the hon. Member for South Antrim is that the RAF presence actually began a year earlier than he said, in May 1917. Major Sholto Douglas MC DFC, a member of the Royal Flying Corps, was recuperating after being injured in France and was asked to survey sites in Ireland that might be suitable for creating bases for the putative RAF. One such site was Aldergrove. It is therefore 91 years almost to the day since Major Sholto Douglas discovered Aldergrove for the purposes of military aviation.

Reference was made to the importance of RAF Aldergrove during the second world war as an RAF Coastal Command base. Of course, in those times, bases as close to the Atlantic ocean as possible were needed, because aircraft had much shorter ranges than those that are available today. Aldergrove was well located for that purpose. The base was a V-bomber dispersal base in the 1950s, as was mentioned. I can tell the hon. Member for South Antrim that, as a trustee of the Vulcan to the Sky Project, I hope that we shall be able to display to him, his constituents and others in Northern Ireland the Vulcan bomber this summer, as a reminder of the part that that marvellous, iconic aeroplane played in our security during the cold war and providing the deterrent that kept the Russians at bay.

The hon. Gentleman made the point that the RAF in Aldergrove has been well supported by the local population. The public at large are suddenly recognising the huge sacrifice that is made in their name by the men and women of our armed forces, so the local population has a role to play. All service units are keen to ensure that they enjoy good relations with the local population, which the hon. Gentleman made absolutely clear.

I flew in a Puma in Northern Ireland under the auspices of the armed forces parliamentary scheme four or five years ago. Although it was not at the height of the troubles, nothing brought home to me the skills of RAF crews more than that trip, and they ought to be recognised. In the great tally of casualties of those who laid down their lives for the sake of the people of Northern Ireland and for the wider interests of the United Kingdom, 3,524 people were killed, of whom 505 were members of the British Army or Territorial Army, 301 were members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and four were from the RAF. The four came from 230 Squadron, which is currently based at RAF Aldergrove. Three aircrew were lost in an airborne collision with an Army Air Corps Gazelle at Bessbrook Mill on 26 November 1992, and an Army major who was on a familiarisation flight was also killed.

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It is important to recognise that not only the Army was involved in Northern Ireland. Just as it is today in Iraq and Afghanistan, the RAF is absolutely at the front line, in harm’s way, in danger and relying upon the incredible skills and courage of the pilots and crew of the aircraft involved in operations. Hon. Members may be interested to know that Bessbrook Mill, which was a converted linen mill, was the base in Armagh, I believe, in the heart of bandit country. At one time, it was the busiest heliport in Europe, with something like 600 flights per week moving something like 15,000 passengers per month. Those statistics encapsulate the extraordinary intensity of the military operations in which all three services—the Royal Navy was involved, especially in rotary operations—participated.

That brings me to 230 Squadron, which is the current serving squadron at RAF Aldergrove. It was formed at Felixstowe on the east coast of England on 20 August 1918 by combining three locally-based sea plane flights, and took up maritime reconnaissance over the North sea flying the Felixstowe F2A. To bring us up to date, the squadron moved to RAF Aldergrove on 4 May 1992—almost 16 years ago to the day—and formed the Puma squadron to provide service in Northern Ireland. It was a re-formed squadron, as the hon. Gentleman said, but it was effectively 230 Squadron. It undertook day and night duties in County Fermanagh, operating from St. Angelo airfield, and similar tasks in south Armagh, operating, as I said, from Bessbrook Mill, as well as Province-wide tasks.

The squadron was engaged in a wide range of operations and carried on in the Province until the cessation of Operation Banner on 31 July last year. During that 15-year period, it amassed in excess of 37,000 flying hours in the Puma. Twenty-six individuals were awarded honours and decorations, including 14 Queen’s commendation for valuable service in the air, seven MBEs, one OBE, one Air Force cross and one distinguished flying cross. Together with the other statistics I have given, that illustrates the commitment that those men and women have given to our country and the people of Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said that times change, which they do, and acknowledged that the armed forces are under immense pressure—I have mentioned Iraq and Afghanistan. The RAF does not have enough people to undertake the tasks that it is asked to do. It is finding it difficult not only to recruit people but, more especially, to retain them. That is a problem because of the constant tempo of operations. It therefore comes as no surprise that the Government are seeking to minimise the commitment that they are calling on those people to make, and if Northern Ireland presents an opportunity to reduce the commitment, the Government will seize it. We should be in no doubt that those people are doing an tremendous service.

I have a few questions for the Minister—[Interruption.] The Minister is gesticulating from a sedentary position, but I have only about a minute’s worth of questions. We still have 20 minutes to go, so he is not going to get away with saying that he does not have enough time to answer questions from the hon. Member for South Antrim and the rest of us.

It is true that the base was not established to deal only with IRA-sponsored violence, and it has been there for 90 years. It would be helpful if the Minister
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told us whether any alternative uses were considered. Was consideration given, for example, to basing the long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft—the Nimrod—at Aldergrove? I say that partly because the base is closer to the field of operations—the Atlantic ocean—as it was in the days of Coastal Command.

The troubles are not completely over, and there is still sporadic violence, as those Northern Ireland Members who have spoken will tell us only too graphically. The Army Air Corps will continue to operate from RAF Belfast, but does the Minister have any other contingency plans that he can tell us about?

The Royal Air Force presence at the Aldergrove site will continue, with a limited number of RAF personnel remaining there, but will the Minister tell us how many? Does he have any information about the role that they will play?

Finally, I make no apologies for ending my contribution by repeating that we in the House owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the armed forces, not least the Royal Air Force. The 37,000 flying hours done by one squadron alone illustrate the extent of the commitment shown by members of the RAF, as well as their unfailing sense of duty to their country and their courage in the face of considerable danger. We should not lose this opportunity to pay tribute to them.

10.42 am

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I thank you for presiding over our proceedings, Mr. Bayley. I also thank the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) for the support that he and his constituents have given, and continue to give, to the armed forces in Northern Ireland, and particularly in the Antrim and Aldergrove area. Aldergrove is a popular posting with the armed forces, and the units that have been, and currently are, based there have built strong links with the local community. I am sure that the units that will be based there in the future will continue to receive that support and will make the same endeavours to develop such links.

I join the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members in paying tribute to the role played by the RAF in Northern Ireland over 90 years. I very much welcome the strong connections that it has developed in Northern Ireland through, for example, the Aircrew Association, the Royal British Legion and the Air Training Corps, as well as through its frequent presence at airshows at Portrush and elsewhere. Again, I am sure that those links will continue.

I also join the hon. Gentleman and others in paying tribute to the Ministry of Defence civilians who support our armed forces in Northern Ireland. As I made clear in my statement about the end of Operation Banner on 25 July 2007, I recognise the role that they have played and their commitment. I had the opportunity to meet and talk to some of those civilians, and their dedication, as well as the personal difficulties that they faced over many years, is palpable. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to them and to make it clear that I recognise the essential role that they will continue to play in this new era, when we all hope that our military personnel in Northern Ireland will train for and undertake deployments worldwide.

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At this point, I must say something about the consultation, because the hon. Gentleman was vociferous in his anger about the way in which it has been handled. I have no desire to upset him, because I have great affection for him; indeed, I admire him from afar from this side of the Chamber. I must tell him, however, that it is extremely difficult to know how to handle such situations. As the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) has suggested, I have announced many changes at bases and training establishments throughout England, Scotland and Wales in my time in this job. The idea that the hon. Member for South Antrim is somehow being treated differently, or that he is being treated differently because he cannot, like others, vote against the Labour party, simply does not stand comparison with the way in which other announcements have been dealt with. In a previous life, I tried to get the hon. Gentleman’s party to support the Government on the odd occasion, and I cannot remember ever having been successful, so his threats are a little empty and do not hurt very much.

The hon. Gentleman’s anger and the issues that he and other hon. Members have put to me raise the question of where Parliament sits in the consultation process. Do we tell Parliament at the start of the process, halfway through or at the end? That is enormously difficult. Where do our employees sit in the consultation process? Are they entitled to know right at the start, once we have developed plans? It has therefore been the norm to make a written statement about such changes, and I wrote to every single hon. Member who would be affected, including the hon. Gentleman’s colleague, the Assembly’s First Minister, the right hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), to try to ensure that they were aware of my statement.

I cannot say how or why the story wound up in the press, or who was responsible, although it could have been the result of one of those letters or of something leaking from the Northern Ireland Office management establishment or the MOD structure in Northern Ireland. I am sorry for the anger that has been caused, but the hon. Gentleman has been treated in the same way as other people when we have had to review RAF locations, the basing of particular aircraft, changes to the training establishment and the rest of it. Generally speaking, we announce such things to Parliament; if we did not, we would be criticised for not doing so. We also announce them in written statements; if we dealt with them all in oral statements, we would be popping up pretty regularly, which would destroy the rest of the day’s business far too often for the liking of other parties and take up valuable time for scrutinising the legislative process.

Dr. McCrea: Does the Minister not understand that this decision is being made by the United Kingdom and Westminster-based Parliament and Government? Given that there is one Member for the constituency, it is only natural for members of the community to say, “When did you, as my Member of Parliament, know? What part did you play in this decision?” The finger is pointed at the individual Member of Parliament, who has to be able to say, “I got it in a written statement.”

Mr. Ainsworth: I understand those difficulties, and I have been subject to them myself in my role as a constituency MP. The hon. Gentleman is not the only
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hon. Member whose constituency is affected by this announcement—the Massereene barracks will be, too. I spend a large part of my time as a Minister writing to all kinds of Members of Parliament—sometimes to 50 and 60 at a time—who are affected by particular aspects of MOD life. I try to consult hon. Members to ensure that they are not left out of the loop or left in a difficult position like the hon. Gentleman. I do not know why he received the letter a little late, but perhaps he needs to examine his side of the chain of communication and not just point the finger at my side. However, there was no attempt or desire to put him in a difficult position.

We need to discuss the substance of the issue. I have set out the background, and I want now to set out the rationale for our decision to relocate 230 Squadron and the RAF supporting personnel from Aldergrove to RAF Benson; to explain the further garrison restructuring that that relocation has enabled; to expand on the reduction in MOD civilian posts in Northern Ireland and the potential redundancies associated with that; and to offer some reassurance, I hope, as regards our commitment to maintaining a military base at Aldergrove.

Puma helicopters, with which 230 Squadron is equipped, play a key role as part of our support helicopter force at home and on operations. They provide tactical troop and load movement by day or night, carrying up to 16 fully-equipped personnel or two tonnes of freight. Relocation of the squadron to RAF Benson, where 33 Squadron, which also operates Pumas, and 28 Squadron and 78 Squadron, which operate Merlins, are already based will allow consolidation of the Puma force and greater coherence in the support helicopter force. It will improve the capability of the fleet by co-ordinating all front-line Puma basing, training, forward fleet maintenance and personnel at a single base.

Hon. Members have asked whether I considered the reverse arrangement of using Aldergrove in that way, and yes, of course I did. One of my first questions was why not do that—why move people into the south-east of England, when potentially we could move them out? Had we considered that? However, the weight of facility and capability and the gain from consolidation into RAF Benson was considerable. To conduct the process in the opposite direction would mean moving training facilities that were well established and embedded, at huge cost, and creating an awful lot of nuisance from helicopter flights in Northern Ireland, which would not be welcome. The logical approach, from the military and consolidation point of view, was the move to Benson, by which the smaller part of the helicopter force would be consolidated into the much larger operation already at RAF Benson.

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