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Defence Jobs

Volume 449: debated on Tuesday 18 July 2006

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue.

Shropshire has a proud and long history of serving this country in Her Majesty’s armed forces. There are 6,000 people employed in the defence sector in Shropshire, and long may that continue. The Shropshire work force are committed and skilled, and they are dedicated to continuing for many years to come the service that they have provided to the county and the nation.

Earlier this year, the Army Base Repair Organisation lost almost 100 jobs, but 770 jobs were saved as a result of the Government listening. They listened because of an Afghanistan inquiry by the Select Committee on Defence. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who agreed to hold that inquiry, which considered attrition on vehicles such as the Warrior. I believe that as a result of the inquiry, the Ministry of Defence changed its mind about closing the ABRO facility at Donnington. That decision was only a three-year stay of execution, however, and I hope that today the Minister will commit to a further extension of the facility’s life. I ask for that because the deployment to Afghanistan will last at least three years—that has been put on record by Ministers and many in this House believe that the deployment might last beyond that. If that is to be the case, it is only fair that the work force should know. That would also make sense as far as military planning is concerned. Of course, we also have what I suggest will be a very long commitment in Iraq. I hope that the Minister will allow the ABRO work force to hear that the three-year extension has been agreed at long last.

I put on record my thanks to the Minister with responsibility for the armed forces, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram) and to the former Under- Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), now in the Privy Council but on the Back Benches, for their flexibility in the allocation of MOD resources.

I turn to the Defence Logistics Organisation. Sadly, it was announced two weeks ago that several hundred jobs will probably be lost at Sapphire House in Telford, the neighbouring constituency to mine. The DLO work force have given many years of service and commitment to the armed forces and this country. I question whether the merger of the Defence Procurement Agency and the DLO is right, but if I put that aside and accepted that it is, I would still ask whether now is the right time. Given our deployments around the world—not only in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in the Balkans, Congo, Cyprus and Gibraltar; we have more commitments now than since the second world war—is it right to make a fundamental, key change to the operating framework of the DLO? I think not.

If we agree with the principle behind the argument that the timing of the ABRO decision was wrong, that argument can apply equally to what is happening with the Defence Logistics Organisation. I hope that the Minister will say that the timing is wrong and that the plans to move some jobs—only some jobs are involved—to Bristol and the south-west will be parked for the time being. There is also much concern among DLO workers about how the consultation has taken place and the new consultation that has been announced. I hope that the consultation period will be extended from 30 days to 90 days so that the case for Sapphire House can be made again to Ministers.

I also want to comment on RAF Cosford. Unemployment in Shropshire has increased by 30 per cent. in the past year and it continues to increase because of an outflow of manufacturing jobs. Sadly, we are seeing the same all over the west midlands. I hope that the west midlands will reinvent itself and become a centre of environmental technology manufacturing, rather than try to hold on to the manufacturing of years gone by. The situation is a little like that which followed the second world war, when munitions factories were turned into car manufacturing plants. Perhaps we need to convert some car manufacturing plants. They could become involved with new types of technology—for example, they could make parts of wind turbines or biomass machinery, or do biofuels engineering.

RAF Cosford is key to the future of defence jobs in Shropshire. About 2,500 people are employed there, and we want that number to expand. I am talking not only about direct military and civilian jobs at Cosford, but the supply chain, not only in Shropshire but in the west midlands more generally. Hon. Members will know that the west midlands has a proud record of serving the aerospace industry. Given recent changes at Airbus, I hope that the Government will be mindful of their need to remain committed to keeping the aerospace industry and the sector’s skills, technologies and work force commitment throughout the west midlands within our region. That can come only through Government commitment and Government leadership. I hope that we shall have some response from the Minister today.

RAF Cosford is key. The defence training review, which we hope will be announced in a few months, must come to Shropshire, and not only because of our high unemployment. Around the other competing site, St. Athan, unemployment has decreased considerably, and I give all credit to the Government for that. However, if they are serious about addressing employment issues, they need look no further than the west midlands.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. As he knows, many of those who work at RAF Cosford are my constituents, so I am grateful to him. Does he agree that the threat to RAF Cosford and the jobs there is indicative of the Government’s lack of attention to Shropshire as a whole? Does it not show that, despite their lack of representation in that county, the Government need to take Shropshire far more seriously?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention; he makes some valid points. In the past week or two, the sugar beet industry in Shropshire has been under threat as a result of British Sugar’s announcement of the closure of the Allscott factory. If the Government are serious about climate change—I digress slightly, but am answering my hon. Friend’s point—they should come to Shropshire and encourage the extension of biomass plants. There is one at the Harper Adams agricultural university and another over the border in Eccleshall; there may be one in north Shropshire as well. Sugar beet can be used to help to reduce climate change and carbon emissions through the use of biofuels, so I hope that the Government will consider what they will do to save the livelihood of 700 Shropshire sugar beet farmers, as well as the factory work force. My hon. Friend is right to underline the link to RAF Cosford, and the fact that the Government need to show commitment to the west midlands.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, he will find unity across the entire west midlands on securing the future of Cosford, but I say to him and the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) that the people of the west midlands watching this debate will be looking for unity across the Chamber on putting the west midlands first, rather than Members trying to score party political points on something so key to the future of our whole region.

I am grateful for that intervention, but was unaware that any party political points were being scored. The intervention itself might be regarded as an attempt to score party political points, but I leave the audience to make their own judgment on that. It would be easy for me to say that the Labour Government were cutting the jobs, but I shall not go there. I am happy to stay united.

It is right to put party politics aside; my view is that we are all in this together. We have to work for the corporate good and that of the whole community. It is incumbent on us as Members of Parliament to work for our constituents, putting aside party politics and working for the good of all. I agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) on that point.

I spoke to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) outside the Chamber. He represents a Welsh constituency. Members with constituencies in Wales can raise points about defence issues in Welsh questions and Defence questions. Other Members with constituencies in the west midlands no doubt want to intervene, so, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall press on with the debate.

I am happy to invite the hon. Gentleman to RAF Cosford to see the fabulous facilities there. He asked about Wales. I have extrapolated some points from the vast amount of data available in the defence training review—I hope that the Minister is taking notes. The review calls for a reduction in the number of sites from 10 to two in a phased four-year programme. The key is a phased programme that is sustainable, that maximises previous investment and that does not require significant investment in local infrastructure.

Shropshire has a marvellous road network, and we know that the Government and the private sector are committed to extending the M6 toll road and linking it with the M54. What better road than one to link up with Cosford? There is also a commitment from local railway companies—it is part of the bid—to regenerate Cosford Halt station, which goes right into the heart of the Cosford airbus area. What better railway than one going into Cosford?

Cosford also has access to Birmingham regional airport. Some Members may disagree with me, but I would be happy to have an extra runway at Birmingham rather than at Heathrow, as it would attract investment and jobs to the area. In addition, the Cosford bid provides for new accommodation and training facilities in the first year, not in the second, third or fourth year.

Most of all, Shropshire has a vibrant community. The Albrighton Traders Association recently handed me a petition that I handed in at 10 Downing street. It asks the Government to consider the consequences to the whole of the community if Cosford does not win the bid. The decision is not just about the military or the work force, although those people clearly are important. It is about the communities of Albrighton, Shifnal and the wider Shropshire area. The impact on local schools if we lost the bid would be dramatic: pupil numbers would fall, budgets would fall and schools would have a difficult time. What would be the impact on traders, bed and breakfasts, hoteliers and local public houses? Even hairdressers—I use the same barber as many of the people at Cosford, as hon. Members can probably tell. My hair is rather short.

I can recommend Mark Egerton of Shifnal. I do not declare an interest: I pay every time and even give a minor tip.

I pay £6.50.

The impact on the community would be serious. I hope that the Government will take an holistic, regional view of the effects should Cosford not win the bid.

At present, I am negotiating with the chief executive of Arriva Trains, Mr. Holland, significantly to improve Arriva’s service between Shrewsbury and Birmingham, which passes through Cosford. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be far more difficult for local MPs and organisations to campaign for better rail services if Cosford were not successful?

We must improve on a rail system that, for the most part, is a good service. My hon. Friend is right to push for improvements, and Arriva Trains, Central Trains or whoever might win future franchises must ensure that they continue to improve the services. This is—forgive me—a twin-track process, whereby the railways would benefit from Cosford, and Cosford would benefit from the railways. Obviously, the local community would benefit from both.

That links nicely with the education sector. Wolverhampton university is an excellent university. It works closely with organisations in the West Midlands technology corridor, which is a cluster of aerospace and technology companies. I hope that that will be a key factor in the decision-making process of the Ministry of Defence. There is an important geographical economy of scale as far as Cosford is concerned. There is a skills set right on its doorstep, and that should be a central consideration.

People who might be required, asked, invited or told to move to St. Athan, should it win the bid, may not go. We are seeing that in the Defence Logistics Organisation. Much of its work force are unable to move to Bristol and the south-west. The fact is that the house prices in St. Athan are 30 per cent. above the regional average. Compare them with the house prices in Cosford, which are 30 per cent. below the regional average. If the Government think that everybody will up sticks and go to St. Athan, they are mistaken, as they were mistaken in respect of the DLO.

I am an admirer of the hon. Gentleman, but I always admire him more when he is silent. I am sorry to tell him that this will be such an opportunity. I told him earlier that I was unable to take his intervention, given that he has an opportunity to raise the issue during Welsh questions. I look forward to his tabling a question on St. Athan for the next Welsh questions. No doubt he will also ask a supplementary on Cosford. [Interruption.]

Thank you, Mr. Cummings.

The education sector is important. I pay tribute to Professor Caroline Gipps, who is the vice-chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton, and to all the work that is being done to help RAF Cosford to win the bid. It is vital that the Government take a regional and holistic view. I come back to that point, as the decision will be critical to the local education sector—not only primary and secondary schools, but the university sector as well. The university works hand in hand with RAF Cosford and the Defence College of Aeronautical Engineering.

In the context of what is happening around the world, it is likely that there will be more emphasis on aeronautics and, dare I say it, even missile technology. Should Britain become part of the ballistic missile defence shield—I am not saying that it should, but there must be a debate in the House at some point—Cosford will play a part in that. Therefore, we should not disrupt Cosford at this time.

I conclude on a wider point. This is a personal view, not a party view. I question whether this country’s defence privatisation has gone too far, and I say that as a Conservative. These are not party political matters. National security goes beyond that. It is the duty of all Governments first and foremost to protect their citizens, and that is also the duty of humble Back Benchers, which most of us are. I question whether the present Government, in their desire to be more macho on privatisation than the Conservative Government, are privatising too much and undermining our national security in the process. Secondly, do they compare post-privatisation or possible privatisation outputs with public sector outputs?

Thirdly, the Government may be underplaying the importance of the military ethos within such organisations. 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.

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 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.

I start by congratulating my neighbour, my hon. Friend the 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.

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?

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.

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 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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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?

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 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.

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 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—

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?

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 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:

“If I were a betting man, which I am not, I would have a few quid on the Shropshire economy being in for a tough time over the next year”.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

I knew that I was taking my life in my hands with that remark. It is a defence debate, and I am well defended by the Minister.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) for securing the debate, and to hon. Members on both sides of the House, representing constituencies in Shropshire and the west midlands, who have spoken very eloquently about many local issues. They ably represent their constituents on this subject.

I want to touch on two issues—the merger of the Defence Logistics Organisation and the Defence Procurement Agency. We accepted at the last election that there was a need to introduce effective through-life management of major capabilities. Indeed, in 2003 the National Audit Office found that one of the barriers to through-life management was the relationship between the DPA and the DLO. It certainly makes sense that there should be one organisation to manage that capability from its inception to the completion of its service life. We felt that that justified a merger with the capability functions of the DLO and the DPA.

We feel that the full merger of the two organisations has the potential to create a very large and cumbersome organisation, and there seems to us to be no reason why the purely logistical functions of the DLO should be included in a merger with the DPA. Consumables such as ammunition and nuts and bolts do not need to be provided by the same organisation that has responsibility for procuring aircraft, ships and tanks. The risk is that the Government will create a huge, unwieldy empire that will not perform either task particularly well. We support merging the capability functions, but think that there should be a separate logistics command specifically to take account of the logistics items, as opposed to the large procurement areas.

On the defence training review, hon. Members will know that my constituency is beautifully positioned, being adjacent to both Wales and the west midlands. I therefore find it easy to take a balanced and neutral position between the two bids. Hon. Members from the west midlands and Shropshire have put their cases very ably, and no doubt others will make strong cases for their bids. I am sure that the Minister will make a very wise decision on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government.

All the joshing apart, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the most important issue that the MOD has to decide on this is not whether there is a higher level of employment or unemployment in one area or another, or the level of relative deprivation between areas, but which bid will provide the best level of training for our forces? If we were to do anything other than that, we would be failing in our duty to our troops.

That is a helpful intervention. I agree that the decision about the defence training review—indeed, all decisions about MOD responsibilities—should absolutely be made on the ground of providing the best possible defence for our nation and, therefore, the best possible training for our forces. That should be the criteria on which the decision is made.

I will not give way again, as time is short and I want to allow the Minister to deal with the many issues that have been raised.

I shall say a brief word about the defence industrial strategy. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin drew attention to the defence industrial strategy’s references to sovereignty and what is meant by the term British. As far as I am concerned, we mean the ownership of intellectual property, companies being based in this country and, very importantly, contracts and companies that will ensure the security of supply of defence capability for this country. Taking those three things together, we can focus on what the defence industrial strategy means by sovereignty and a preference for British companies.

I repeat that the absolute priority of the MOD must be to ensure that we maintain the standards of service and support that our forces deserve and need. However, it is worth making one more point about the defence training review as a caution: whatever decision the Minister takes, it should not undermine the military ethos of that training. We are training soldiers and servicemen, and that is not the same as training people for a role in private business. We ask a great deal of those who serve in our armed forces. Our training should recognise that, and the military ethos should be properly preserved to recognise that we ask our armed forces to do a very separate and distinctive job. We must ensure that we maintain the military ethos and professionalism of the armed forces on which we depend, as we have in the past and will in the future.

It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. Hood. If we could physically hug each other, I would have no problem with that. After all, this has been a very “new man” debate, with the exception of the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt).

The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) should be congratulated on securing the debate. He talked about taking an holistic approach. I shall give an holistic response if I can. Before I begin to talk about some of the key issues, I must say that never in the field of party political conflict have so many press releases been owed to the Shropshire Star. I say to the famous five from Shropshire, somewhere in that newsroom, a man—or woman—is generating page leaves as we speak. I commend you all.

I congratulate in particular Mr. Mark Egerton, the barber of Shropshire. The hon. Gentleman has probably bankrupted him by now, but I am sure that, given the excellent employment opportunities across the region, he will be able to find alternative employment.

On a serious note, the hon. Gentleman raised several points. I shall talk about the defence training review at the end of my speech, because I want to talk about wider defence issues across the region, if hon. Members will allow me to. This debate has been a thinly disguised opportunity for Members to lobby for the defence training review, but I do not object to that, in the interests of fairness, because, as the hon. Gentleman will know, I was invited to talk to the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs about defence in Wales, and that was also a thinly disguised lobby on behalf of St. Athan. I expect hon. Members to argue for their regions.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper)—I shall call him my hon. Friend—on staying studiously neutral on the matter, both geographically and politically. I commend the hon. Member for Solihull on coming out, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, for RAF Cosford—I think—but let us see what happens with that.

We have even got a press release for south Wales out of a debate on defence in the midlands.

Our broader plans for the Ministry of Defence for the next few years are to modernise the MOD, our armed forces and our defence capability. The changes include initiatives in areas such as logistics, on which we have touched—I will respond to hon. Members’ comments on that later—information systems, personnel and estates, and training. They apply to all service and civilian personnel, not only in the west midlands region, but throughout the UK and worldwide.

We are managing the defence change programme as a single, coherent effort with the goal of modernising and improving our defence business processes. That will allow us to reallocate our scarce resources from back-office functions towards the front line in order to improve our operational capability. That is the best way to make sure that we can go on giving the best support to our servicemen and women in the future, to which so many have referred today. That means that we have to do things better and cut out waste.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin made a point questioning privatisation. I hope that that comment will not come back and haunt him as he progresses through his career in his party. He is bold enough to shake his head. There is no ideological commitment for or against privatisation in the MOD. We pick a view that—

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; I know that he will want Hansard to be accurate in reflecting my earlier comments. I am not objecting to privatisation in principle; I am saying that it needs to be undertaken on a case-by-case basis and should be done objectively rather than driven by some ideology. With the MOD there has, perhaps, in some cases, been a privatisation too far.

I am grateful. I am sure that that clarification will go into Hansard. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) who is, dare I say, the unity candidate today was nodding vigorously at the hon. Gentleman’s stateist approach and his arguments for protecting jobs in the region. I am certain that they can reach a consensus today about how we should protect jobs in the region rather than open up to the market. That allows me to answer the central point of my future leader’s argument about consultation. [Interruption.] I am only joking. He would not expect a former trade union official not to want greater consultation.

I understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, who has responsibility for the armed forces, yesterday met a delegation that was led by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) to talk about some of these issues. Other meetings are planned, and I expect representatives of the work force to be heard at all levels in the MOD and across the management.

I shall give one example of a lack of information flow. In relation to the future defence supply chain initiative, no information has been provided regarding the estimate that has been provided to the unions of cost savings of £400 million. The unions have not been provided with a copy of the investment appraisal, or financial data setting out how any of those savings are to be provided. That level of information would give some assurance to members of staff working in the field that they can have a guaranteed future.

Unlike my hon. Friend, I do not have the benefit of the PCS brief, but I hope that he can be reassured that the commitment that I gave is absolute: we want our work force to be involved. Indeed, I think that they are consulted extensively, but my hon. Friend’s points will be taken up, and if there is a problem, we will deal with it.

On privatisation, the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) and I met a delegation of workers in the House some time ago. It is not only Conservative politicians who are concerned about privatisation; ordinary workers and members of the public are concerned that the British defence industry could end up in the hands of foreign companies that have no good will towards this country.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. Indeed, I understand that representatives of Amicus, the manufacturing union, are in the House today. They represent ordinary workers in Shropshire and from across the region, and I would be delighted to show the hon. Gentleman the room where they are trying to lobby. He could put to them his view that he stands for ordinary workers in Shropshire, and I am sure that they would like to engage him on their views about privatisation.

I just want to put something on the record. There is no such thing as ordinary workers in Shropshire—there are only extraordinary workers in Shropshire.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) will feel admonished for having referred to ordinary workers in Shropshire.

I do, because I was making a serious point. The Minister is trying to say that I used the word “ordinary” in some derogatory way, but that is not correct. I simply said that those people felt passionately about this issue and that they reflected public opinion.

In that case, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will attend the Amicus meeting straight after this event to put those points.

I have a lot to say about defence and jobs in our region, so let me move on. I know that hon. Members want me to talk about the defence training review, and I shall try to get through my comments as quickly as I can so that we can talk about my position on the review at the end.

Our goals are ambitious. We have committed ourselves to achieving £2.8 billion of efficiency savings by 2007-08. That money will be reinvested to maximise front-line capability and will come partly from cutting numbers elsewhere. We are committed to reducing the number of civilian posts by at least 10,000 and the number of military posts in administrative and support roles by at least 5,000.

As I am sure that the hon. Member for The Wrekin is aware, the Defence Medical Services branch of the Ministry of Defence already enjoys a strong presence in the west midlands. The Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, which is based in and around Birmingham, has recently benefited from a £106 million refit, which I am sure that all hon. Members welcome. That refit was carried out in partnership with the regional development agency.

In that respect, perhaps I can answer some of the cogent points raised by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), who talked about the “Let’s Fly” campaign led by the RDA. That is the west midlands RDA at its best, and I hope that we will be able to stand up for it when we talk about the future of RDAs in other forums, because it is the only body in our region that could mount such a campaign. I know that the hon. Gentleman will want to stand up for RDAs up and down the country, given that some hon. Members believe that there is a question mark over their future.

The chief executive of the Defence Medical Education and Training Agency is now leading a programme to improve accommodation and support facilities for military medical personnel in Birmingham and is exploring a number of options to consolidate the command, control and training elements of the Defence Medical Services. That is intended to create an international centre for clinical excellence and to provide a suitable environment for DMETA military and civilian personnel, including those who are currently serving in Birmingham without access to MOD accommodation or facilities. That would result in significant numbers of staff and jobs being relocated to the west midlands from around the country, and I know that all hon. Members will support the Government in trying to achieve that goal.

In the few minutes that remain, I should like to move straight on to the defence training review. The in-house bid was not considered appropriate, because it could not have provided comparable technical innovation, performance discipline and risk transfer. The DTR programme is about improving training and its environment, as well as managing the risk of demand ebb and flow without compromising the quality of training. A PPP arrangement will offer the best value-for-money solution, while still meeting the MOD’s critical requirements.

Our initial studies identified six streams of specialist training, which are currently being conducted on about 30 separate sites around the country. Together, those streams offered the greatest potential benefits from the rationalisation and harmonisation, and hon. Members have referred to that. Consequently, they have been grouped into two packages for what my officials describe as maximum synergy, or what I would describe as a common-sense solution. Package 1 comprises training for engineering and communications, while package 2 will provide training for logistics, security, policing and administration.

Our overall procurement strategy has required bidders to select sites as part of their training proposals. They were given a free hand to decide which MOD or non-MOD sites offered the best solution. That geographical freedom has been essential for bidders to develop coherent value-for-money proposals that take full account of the service training requirement, their training design and delivery solutions, the necessary personnel and skills, and the environment in which solutions would be delivered.

There are two bidders for each contractual package. The evaluation process is drawing to an end, and I can provide an assurance that an extensive and robust evaluation methodology has been in place to ensure that bidders’ proposals meet defence requirements and are evaluated on an equitable basis. All factors are being considered. The process has been led by a Ministry of Defence project team, although it has involved several hundred other training and estates subject matter experts. The relevant procurement rules have been carefully applied, and the work has been overseen by our own private finance unit specialists and independent academic experts to ensure there is a level playing field.

The project team and those involved in the evaluation have been commended by Professor Molyneaux, the independent auditor of our evaluation process and a leading expert in learning technologies, for operating with the utmost professionalism and objectivity throughout the process. The evaluation process has properly weighted the training element of bidders’ proposals, including the ability to deliver distance learning in front-line command units, above other supporting and enabling capabilities, such as the future estate. It has also strongly emphasised the application of innovation in that process.

We therefore have good reason to expect a solution that best delivers value for money for defence specialist training. However, lower-priority factors, such as location, regional economic and sociological impacts, transport links and other related points will not be ignored. I am aware, for example, of the proposal to establish a national manufacturing skills academy in the west midlands. We welcome that initiative, which would have a role in achieving the Department’s desire for national centres of excellence as part of preferred bidder negotiations, whichever bidder is successful.

As I have explained, I can make only limited comments on any likely use of sites at this competitive phase of the project, as I am sure that hon. Members understand. Those who have spoken have raised several specific points that go beyond the DTR, but I have not been able to cover them, because of time limitations. However, I shall make myself available to anyone who needs me to pick up any of those points afterwards or who needs to write to me.

However, I can also assure the House that there is no question of the MOD systematically withdrawing from the west midlands. Many options remain available for the use of existing MOD establishments in the region. I acknowledge that there might well be closures in the future, but we are actively pursuing numerous possibilities. We certainly recognise that change can be unsettling for individuals, so staff and the trade unions are being kept closely informed of the latest developments.

To conclude, I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin on allowing us to talk about the excellent future that defence has in the midlands. I also congratulate all other hon. Members who have made a contribution.