Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Watson.]
I always have this effect on people, Mr. Speaker. I can empty a room at 100 paces. Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to debate this issue, which is so important to my constituency and—dare I say it?—to the Ministry of Defence. I am also glad that the Minister for the Armed Forces is in his place for this important debate.
It might be helpful to the House if I provide a little background to this issue, and explain why I feel that it is necessary for us to debate the ins and outs of the Government’s position and of the proposal that has been placed on the table by the trade unions. The Defence Aviation Repair Agency—more commonly known by the acronym DARA—has a base in Almondbank that provides maintenance and repair facilities for the UK’s military helicopter fleet. The House will forgive me if I focus my remarks on Almondbank—although the issue also affects Fleetlands. Some of my hon. Friends have also expressed their wish to contribute to the debate. I thank them for giving me prior notice of that.
I cannot speak highly enough of the 300 or so dedicated and skilled members of the work force at Almondbank. They have met or exceeded every target set by the Ministry of Defence, streamlined output and reduced downtime. We should not lose sight of those important facts. Almondbank is also important in terms of its ability to train and to skill apprentices. DARA Almondbank has forged some very strong links with nearby Perth college to encourage our young people to learn a trade. Those young people have learned, and are learning today, the skills necessary to compete in this industry. The Government have a duty of responsibility to those young people who see their futures within DARA.
I attended a reception at No. 10 Downing street before Christmas, which brought together some of the finest young people involved in apprenticeships from around the UK. Many of those individuals were employed in the private sector, which made me think that surely the Government should be fighting to create and retain those skills in the public sector. We have the skills at Almondbank and we are faced with a choice of whether to keep them in the public sector or risk losing them to the private sector—or to even lower skilled employment if those people are not content in the private sector.
I know that the Government are committed to protecting the current skills base and to developing new skills in the form of modern apprenticeships, and although devolved issues come into play in this case, I would hope that the MOD will take the UK’s long-term objectives into account when deciding on the future of DARA. DARA’s work is world renowned and remains a credit to Perthshire, to Scotland and, indeed, to the UK.
As my hon. Friend mentioned earlier, this issue is also relevant to DARA in Fleetlands, where many of my constituents work. When it was announced that the work was going out to tender with a view to outsourcing, people were concerned that the jobs would not remain in the UK. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is one of the main worries of the people who work there and that they should addressed?
My hon. Friend is right that people are concerned about whether the jobs remain not just on the individual sites that we are discussing tonight, but in the UK. I hope that the Minister will deal with my hon. Friend’s point when he replies to the debate.
I have had the opportunity to visit the Almondbank site on several occasions and I will be there again tomorrow when Baroness Taylor, who has accepted my invitation, visits the site before reaching a decision on it. Almondbank is always busy and during my visits I am always impressed with the enthusiasm and professionalism of the work force and the way in which they go about their business, pulling together to meet tight deadlines. I believe that the House owes a great deal of gratitude to the work force, as they ensure that our brave soldiers are supported with a well maintained helicopter fleet. I have no doubt that I will witness more of the same hard work and commitment tomorrow, and I am glad that Baroness Taylor will be there to see it too.
It is not just hard work and the skilled quality of work that are on display at Almondbank, but a dramatic improvement in productivity. That has been achieved through the co-operation of the work force, setting an example not only to the rest of government, but to the rest of British industry.
My right hon. Friend makes a telling point. As I said earlier, the work force at DARA have met and exceeded every expectation placed on them by the MOD. That should be a positive factor to bear in mind when the decision about its future is taken. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Baroness Taylor for giving up her time to visit Almondbank and I trust that my right hon. Friend the Minister will make her aware of that. I have always felt that it is vital for Ministers to meet local management and workers on site before taking any such important decisions.
No one is pretending that this is an easy situation and we all realise that tough decisions are necessary, which is what being in government is all about. The introduction of market forces to the public sector has forced Government agencies to reconsider the way they operate and it has been no different for DARA. Obviously, the Government have a duty to ensure that defence budgets are spent wisely and the fact that the MOD decided to “test the market” to determine whether DARA and its work force would be better suited outside the Ministry of Defence is indeed the reason why we are here tonight.
It is only right at this point to pay tribute to the trade union officials of Unite, PCS and Prospect who have come together under a single banner, led by Ian Waddell, and have put forward very detailed and well informed proposals. The unions have worked with the Government in defence matters in other areas, especially on the Defence Support Group. There is confusion as to why DARA cannot fit into that concept.
Union officials have argued well on behalf of their work force and continue the fine tradition of trade unionism in Scotland. The workers can feel rightly proud of how their union officials have fought their corner. The unions will agree that their proposals came late in the day, but they were encouraged to play that role by the previous Minister, Lord Drayson. The important point, however, is that the proposals have now been made and are on the table. I am grateful that Baroness Taylor has delayed the decision on DARA’s future, and I hope that the time is being well used to explore all the options fully. But will my right hon. Friend the Minister tell the House what the Government’s time scales are in relation to the decision-making process?
When the Vector Aerospace proposals were made, sale was the only game in town. It represented the best, and at that time, only option for securing the future of the work force. Ministry of Defence officials saw it as the only alternative to long-term decline and inevitable job losses.
At Fleetlands, the workers saw the engine maintenance business disappear, which left only helicopter repair. I take on board my hon. Friend’s point. Should we not ask the Minister to delay as long as possible to ensure that the workers are fully consulted and feel fully a part of the decision? Does he agree that the workers support and enable our armed forces to do the job that they do so well around the world?
I could not agree more strongly with my hon. Friend’s point. That issue has been raised in discussions with unions and the work force. Were the Government in a position, at some point in the not-too-distant future, to establish a working group to consider the future of the plants outwith a private sector sale, I am sure that Members, unions and the work force would embrace the MOD’s proposals.
I met Vector Aerospace’s chief executive officer, Donald Jackson, twice last year, once in Canada and once in London. Our talks were civil and Mr. Jackson recognised the skills of the work force. He outlined to me that were his company successful, the Almondbank work force would have a major part to play in the future of Vector Aerospace. Those assurances were welcome and remain so. Concerns about the company have been flagged up, however, particularly relating to its size and the permanence and stability of its future plans. I assume that as Vector Aerospace has been selected as the preferred bidder, the Government are satisfied with its ability to take DARA and its work force forward. But will the Minister outline how and why Vector has the capability to move DARA forward whereas the public sector does not?
I anticipate that my right hon. Friend will tell me that the Chinook, Sea King and Lynx platforms have a limited life span, and that future rotary wing maintenance requirements will become the responsibility of the manufacturer, due to a change in the purchasing policy at the MOD. But the very fact that the responsibility lies with the manufacturer, whose sole objective is to produce new helicopters, means that it will be forced to subcontract much if not all of that maintenance work. It is my understanding that Vector Aerospace would aim to secure such contracts for Almondbank. The question must be: why cannot DARA secure that work in the public sector? If Vector has investment plans that will facilitate that development, they have not been made clear to the trade unions in the ongoing negotiations. If the Minister is aware of Vector’s investment plans, will he tell the House a little about them tonight?
Colleagues might think me psychic, but I am also sure that when the Minister replies he will say that privatisation will give DARA more of an opportunity to secure commercial work, thus giving the company a greater degree of stability. But DARA already has a private sector order book. Again, we must ask why the existing commercial order book cannot be “grown” while remaining in the public sector. I hope that the Minister will be able to address that.
Let me give some of the details of the trade union proposals. The unions want a system of mobile servicing parties to be introduced. The parties would be based at our main operating bases, and would provide service support for aircraft and components. The proposed arrangements would reduce downtime, and as a result would increase the availability of aircraft. The unions believe that that approach has a proven track record at ABRO, where in-barracks support arrangements currently apply to the ground vehicle fleet. However, it is important to remember that if ownership leaves the MOD, with the loss of ownership will go a loss of influence and control. The new owners of the operation will make the decisions.
A further benefit of the union’s proposals is that inexperienced servicemen can work alongside experienced and seasoned craft personnel, and learn on the job as they are coached. The unions see no reason why that “man in a van” approach, which is successful elsewhere, could not be equally successful at DARA. They also propose the establishment of a dedicated DARA liaison representative at each main operating base to act as a contact point for the squadrons and to co-ordinate mobile servicing parties, ensuring that all expectations and demands are met. They suggest that service personnel should be reintegrated at centres of excellence, in this case Almondbank and Fleetlands. That in itself would build stronger relationships between DARA and its main customer, and would make possible a knowledge transfer that could be taken to the front line.
I suppose that it would not be possible to have a debate of this type without mentioning the security of service to our armed forces, especially when the United Kingdom helicopter fleet is playing such a vital role in supplying our troops. I hope the Minister accepts that it is not inappropriate to ask whether the time is right for such a move. With a fleet of over 300 helicopters serving in operations all over the world and given the commitment made in 2005 to invest £3 billion in the helicopter fleet over 10 years, it is not unreasonable to ask if that could be better achieved within the MOD. Nothing in my mind or in my words suggests that MOD Ministers will not consider fully the effect on the armed forces and make a decision that is in their best interests—I know that they will—but I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Minister that it is legitimate to ask whether this is the right time.
No one is claiming that the union’s proposals are perfect, or indeed that Vector’s proposals are all bad. However, it has taken the MOD years to reach preferred-bidder status with Vector Aerospace, and as the union’s proposals have only been with the MOD for a matter of weeks, it is questionable whether there has been enough time for them to be fully evaluated. Will the Minister undertake to make representations to his colleagues to ensure that trade union proposals focusing on retaining the skills based at Almondbank in the public sector will be given all due consideration? If the Department experiences difficulties, I ask for them to be discussed constructively with the unions in a way that gives them an opportunity to address the points that are made.
Each day that passes without a decision adds to the uncertainty of the work force, and increases the likelihood that staff will look elsewhere. We are talking about vital skills, not jobs that we can get off the shelf. If we lose those skills, DARA will lose its effectiveness, and also its attractiveness to both the public and the private sector. Then we will be in serious difficulties.
South Perthshire is not a highly skilled area, and it certainly would not be possible to replace staff quickly if there is truth in the report that current employees are already looking for other work in case the business is sold. The sale could therefore result in an outflow of highly skilled staff, which would in turn destabilise the business. I ask the Minister to ensure that that too is taken into account in his Department’s considerations.
Certainly in my constituency, DARA is one of the few large-scale employers left, thanks in no small part to the—currently invisible—Conservative party. We are, in some senses, lucky not to be talking about closure, and instead to be discussing in what sector and in what form Almondbank will exist in the future.
The only point I have yet to make is to re-issue my invitation to the Secretary of State for Defence and Baroness Taylor to visit Almondbank, but in light of yesterday’s announcement at Scottish questions I no longer have to do that. However, I do not want to leave out my right hon. Friend the Minister, so I extend an invitation to him to come to Almondbank, and I also assure him that he is always welcome in my constituency. If he wishes to come to Scotland with Baroness Taylor tomorrow, on the birthday of Robert Burns, I am sure that we will make him feel very welcome.
I hope the Minister can answer the points raised and shed some light on his Department’s current thinking on the Defence Aviation Repair Agency. As I have said, the key is to ensure that the unions’ proposals are fully considered—and, indeed, responded to. Privatisation is no longer the only option, but I am aware that it remains an option. If there is any way that DARA can be kept within the Ministry of Defence while remaining a viable business, I shall certainly support that. The Minister will also have the support of the work force and the unions; I can assure the House of that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) on securing this debate, which is important for both our constituencies. Although DARA Almondbank is in his constituency, the vast majority of its work force are my constituents from the city of Perth, and it is located less than two miles across our boundary. I share the concerns of the work force and the joint trade unions about the future of this first-class facility. I have had several meetings with local trade unions, and I have spoken with employees and I have met with the management. There is a genuine, general concern across Perthshire about the fate of DARA Almondbank.
My colleague, Roseanna Cunningham, the MSP for Perth, had a similar debate in the Scottish Parliament last week, in which she attracted cross-party support for the plight of DARA Almondbank. I also understand that the First Minister of Scotland is due to visit in the next few weeks, and there will, of course, be an important visit tomorrow by Baroness Taylor. I also extend an invitation to the Minister: he should come to Perthshire on Burns’ day as he would have a fantastic time—but he is probably too busy.
All of this interest is because DARA Almondbank is vital to the Perthshire economy. In 2006, it was reckoned that it accounted for about 6.4 per cent. of the total employment in the area, and that the Defence Aviation Repair Agency’s presence contributed about £38.4 million to the local economy of Perth and Kinross. Perth and Kinross council has had an ongoing watching brief of DARA Almondbank over the past 10 years, and it has seen the extent of its contribution and how key a resource it is for the area.
The type of jobs it provides is an important aspect of that. Like much of rural Scotland, Perthshire is overly dependent on tourism. I welcome tourism—it is a great industry for my constituency—but it is notoriously low paid and low skilled. The jobs at DARA Almondbank are high skilled and high value—the kind of jobs we do not see too often in Perthshire. It is essential that we hold on to them, and develop them and the skills associated with them, so that we can take more young people into those high-skilled, high-value jobs.
Disappointingly, the Ministry of Defence has said that there are only two options for DARA Almondbank: privatisation or a managed decline. That suggests a poverty of imagination. The unions and the work force have refused to accept that they are the only two options, and they have put forward a compelling case for DARA Almondbank to be retained in the public sector. I welcome the fact that we are not debating the possible closure of DARA Almondbank; I respect the fact that the facility is to be saved, but what we as local Members want is the best possible outcome for it. We do not want it just to be retained and to remain; we want it to be developed, and to ensure that it goes from strength to strength and wins more of the awards that it is famous for winning, and to develop its skills. That requires our attention within the public sector. I was quite encouraged yesterday when the Secretary of State for Scotland told me during Scottish questions that he would be open to “all” proposals.
I still hope, even at this late stage, that the joint trade unions’ proposals will secure that fair wind, because their suggestion is truly imaginative. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire touched on some of the things that they are offering. Among them are: the creation of mobile repair teams to service helicopters at bases or at the front line; a change in funding to contracting for capability; and integrating service personnel into the business.
The joint trade unions have been to Westminster and have met the Minister to discuss the proposals. I understand that they were not particularly encouraged by what he had to say. Perhaps the intervention by the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire in this debate and the emphasis that has been put on DARA will mean that the Minister will re-examine the proposals and give them a bit more of a fair wind.
We know that the preferred bidder for DARA Almondbank is Vector Aerospace. I do not share the confidence of the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire in that company. It is a small Canadian outfit, and if it acquired DARA Almondbank, its whole output would be doubled. That is how small Vector Aerospace is. It has no track record in UK defence infrastructure, and I have concerns about its ability to run DARA Almondbank effectively.
Lots of figures are bandied about concerning what effect taking over DARA Almondbank would have on the size of Vector Aerospace. The most reliable that I have is that doing so would increase Vector Aerospace as an organisation by a third, and not by 200 per cent.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s correction. It still concerns me that Vector Aerospace would almost become dependent on the output of DARA Almondbank. Several questions remain. If this is not successful, what happens to the skilled jobs and to the DARA Almondbank facility? Will the jobs be lost? Will this be the end of an award-winning, first-class facility? We need to be reassured that the jobs will be safe.
I took some comfort yesterday from Baroness Taylor’s comment that she would not permit the ongoing sale to a third party. That gives a measure of reassurance to some of the Almondbank work force, but it would remain cold comfort if the whole operation fails. That question needs to be addressed, given the concern that we have about all this.
I am grateful for the fact that Baroness Taylor will be visiting DARA Almondbank on Friday. I know that she will enjoy her trip, because she will meet a skilled work force who are totally committed and dedicated. They have provided such an excellent service to front-line defence capabilities and to so many operations in the course of the past 10 years. I only hope that when she speaks to the work force she will listen to their real concerns and to the compelling case to retain DARA in the public sector.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) on securing this debate. He is assiduous in pursuing local issues on behalf of his constituents, and he has rightly been very active in this matter on the future of the Defence Aviation Repair Agency, and in particular Almondbank. He is, of course, joined in his concerns by the trade unions, acting on behalf of DARA’s employees, and they, as well as he, have raised issues over time. As he has said, they have put together alternative proposals for consideration at the invitation of Lord Drayson. I have read the trade unions’ proposals. Baroness Taylor has gone through the proposals in detail, as has the Secretary of State for Defence. As my hon. Friend knows, we have also talked to him and listened to his advice, ideas and representations.
We have two guiding principles in examining DARA’s future, which override all other considerations. I hope that the House and my hon. Friend will agree that those principles are the priorities that should steer our decisions. First and foremost are the interests of our armed forces, who are involved in difficult and dangerous operations on our behalf and are dependent on the equipment—in this case helicopters—that we supply them with for their effectiveness and safety. We will do nothing that does not protect and potentially enhance our ability to supply our forces effectively now and in the future.
Our second guiding principle is securing the skills that we have at DARA. Short-term financial considerations are of little or no value. In rotary wing maintenance, as elsewhere, we need a sustainable skill base in the UK that is capable of meeting our needs over the long term as well as providing quality jobs in constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend. Those principles underlie the defence industrial strategy. They are widely supported in the House, and by the trade union movement, too. Indeed, the only people who oppose the principles of the strategy are the free market zealots who believe that the maintenance of industrial capabilities in defence is not important.
Historically, DARA’s role has been to provide depth maintenance, to repair and to overhaul the fixed-wing aircraft of the RAF and the helicopters of all three services. In recent years, logistical reform has led to the migration of depth repair to our partners in industry, including some at the main operating bases. Such changes already happen. Partnering is working particularly well in the maintenance of our fast jet fleets, both Tornado and Harrier. There are 11 more Harrier aircraft available to the front line at any one time, as they spend less time in depth maintenance because of the partnering arrangements that we have managed to agree to cover that work. The time spent in depth maintenance is reduced by 59 per cent., allowing us greater capability on the front line.
As a result of those developments, DARA has progressively become less viable. Its businesses for fast jets and engines have already closed. Its business in Wales, having lost its fast jet work, now supports only the VC10. DARA’s helicopter repair business is based at Fleetlands, Hampshire and the associated helicopter components business is based at Almondbank. The vast majority of its work is to support the Chinook helicopters, as a subcontractor for Boeing, and to support Sea King helicopters, which it currently undertakes directly for the MOD although it will soon be a subcontractor for AgustaWestland.
Support for new helicopter platforms such as Merlin and Apache is provided by the manufacturer, which provides through-life support because of its inherent knowledge of the platforms’ design and military capabilities. As our equipment becomes more complex, that is an inevitable trend. We will need depth maintenance to be provided by the original manufacturer, as it knows the detail of the equipment that it supplies.
On the basis of its defence work load alone, we cannot see how DARA’s rotary wing business can remain viable beyond the out-of-service date of the Sea King helicopter. In sharp contrast to our industrial partners, DARA holds very little intellectual property or design capability. However, as a subcontractor, it possesses technical know-how and, as my hon. Friend said, a highly skilled work force who are extremely capable and committed to supporting operations. We must ensure that that capability endures. That is what we are about.
So, since late 2005, we have been examining options for the future of these businesses, aiming at a solution that best preserves the capability to support the armed forces and secures the long-term employment of the work force. We looked at both sale and in-house options. It is not true, as some assert, that Vector Aerospace was the only interested bidder: in fact, we received expressions of interest from more than 20 bidders, out of which three companies were selected as provisional preferred bidders.
As the process continued, however, Vector Aerospace demonstrated that it was best placed to deliver the capability that our armed forces require, and to provide longevity of employment to the work force. Thus, in July 2007, I announced that Vector Aerospace was the preferred bidder for the rotary wing and component businesses.
My hon. Friend asked about consultation with the trade unions. I can tell him that, throughout the period since 2005, we have been in both formal and informal consultation with them. Yes, they have raised concerns, but it is their job to do so. My hon. Friend was right to say that the unions have produced their own report, but I would not like the House to get the impression that we have not had consultations with them throughout the period. Moreover, Baroness Taylor is prepared to continue to talk to the trade union movement into the future.
Despite its relatively small presence in the UK, Vector Aerospace has considerable defence experience, especially in north America, where it provides rotary wing maintenance to the US military. Through its UK subsidiary, Sigma, it already services the MOD’s VC10 Conway and Hercules engines, and it is seeking to broaden its footprint. There are clear indications that there will be future growth in this area, and Vector Aerospace has already actively made the necessary approaches to secure further MOD engine business for its UK base.
There is tacit but substantial support from Boeing and AgustaWestland that Vector Aerospace would be a key link in their performance under future contracting arrangements. There are therefore real prospects for investment and for winning future business through commercial and military work.
In this process, we have insisted that the bidder complies with all employment obligations and with the Government’s fair deal for staff pensions. We will not sell the businesses unless Vector Aerospace complies with those vital employment safeguards. Moreover, I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) that the protections are identical for both the Fleetlands and Almondbank sites, and that they also apply to any subsequent sale of the business to a third party. Vector Aerospace has also undertaken to support and take forward the apprentice scheme.
Vector Aerospace has legally undertaken to retain the businesses in the UK. To provide further certainty for the work force, we have secured equally binding assurances that Vector Aerospace will remain at the current locations as long as it is economically viable to do so. The MOD has also secured a legally binding commitment that Vector Aerospace cannot sell or transfer the business to a third party without the MOD’s prior approval.
If the sale proceeds, we expect Vector Aerospace not only to maintain current capability but to innovate and to improve the current service that DARA provides. Vector Aerospace has a good track record, in both employee relations and improving performance. I can also confirm that it has no current plans for redundancies at either site.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) has accused the Government of lacking imagination, and he has asked that we think again about the sale. I do not know to what degree he has looked at the developments that have taken place under the defence industrial strategy. I am not at all sure what priority he gives to the issue, because I am not certain what priority his party gives to defence per se, never mind to the industrial hinterland that is required if we are to maintain our defence capabilities.
All the innovation that the hon. Gentleman talked about, and the methodologies for bringing well-paid employment and high levels of performance to the defence industries, is already taking place through partnering arrangements. There are such arrangements for different aspects of manufacture: for fleet maintenance—my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) will be more aware of that than anyone else in the Chamber—and for fixed-wing and rotary. If we are to develop, maintain and ensure security for the work force, that has to be the road forward. That is the direction that all contracting is taking. Inevitably, it must go in that direction.
I know that Members of Parliament have a job to do, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire has been doing that job for some time. However, I hope that they will not deliberately posture and scare people, because in the end it may be not the sale but ongoing uncertainty about the future that drives the work force away from DARA. They need to know that they are appreciated. I think that the main reason why the company is interested is the work force’s skills. It is not the real estate that the company wants; it wants that skilled work force, so that it can develop them and take them forward. If my right hon. and hon. Friends in the ministerial team and I did not believe that, we would not be considering the option as a way forward.
There is no scaremongering going on at Almondbank. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) and I have received countless representations from the concerned work force. The Minister speaks glowingly of the private sector’s involvement in defence installations, but I remind him that Scotland’s experience with privatisations and with the private sector becoming involved in defence facilities has not been particularly positive. One need only look at the Rosyth naval base in Dunfermline to find out what happens when the private sector is involved. The experience is not as positive as the Minister says. It is right that we raise concerns about such privatisations.
I have visited the base at Faslane, where partnership arrangements have led to improved efficiency and an ongoing future for the work force. I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman supports that base; he is probably more likely to be at the gates demonstrating against its very existence. Only the other week I visited the RAF base at Marham, where we have partnering arrangements. BAE Systems employees work on the base alongside military people and Rolls-Royce employees to deliver supply and efficiency improvements in support of our Tornado fleet. Those methodologies are well-embedded, and are delivering real gains and security of employment for skilled people, not just in Scotland but across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.
Apprenticeships have been mentioned. My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) and the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) are referring to very skilled jobs. It is not the policy of the Scottish Executive or Government, or whatever we call them, to fund apprenticeships in the workplace to the same degree as the UK Government, but is my right hon. Friend the Minister aware that one place where apprenticeships are still funded by the UK Government is in Scotland in jobs such as those that we are discussing?
Part of our negotiations has been aimed at securing a commitment to continuing the situation as regards the apprentice scheme at DARA. We have got commitments from the company on that. We expect it to take the scheme forward, and to develop the apprentices and the apprenticeship, just as we expect it to maintain and develop the work force.
May I take my right hon. Friend back to the point that he made a few moments ago about the skills base at DARA at Almondbank? The expertise there which, as I said in my remarks, has met and exceeded every expectation of the MOD, makes the site attractive to a private sector buyer, and that same expertise has saved that location from closure and the other rationalisation of DARA that has gone on. Some of my constituents, as well as some of the constituents of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), see it as a double-edged sword—the expertise that saved the site from possible closure may now take them out of the MOD family that they have been in for so long.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the issue. We all know from experience in our own lives and in our constituencies that change is always worrying. I can only repeat what I said earlier. The two principles that we have in taking the proposal forward are, first, to maintain and improve support to our armed forces. We must never let go of that. It must always be the overriding first principle for anyone who is interested in the defence of the realm. The second is to make sure that we maintain the skills base that allows us to do that over the long term. If we did not believe that that was possible in this case, we would not be considering the proposal.
If the sale proceeds, we will expect Vector Aerospace not only to maintain current capability, but to innovate and improve the current service that DARA provides. Vector Aerospace has a good record both in employee relations and in improving performance. I can confirm that it has no current plans for redundancies at either site.
As I indicated to my hon. Friend, we have looked seriously at the alternative trade union proposals. We do not dismiss the work that they have done. The document is an impressive piece of work. I have read it, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has gone through it in great detail. However, we remain of the view that under the current arrangement DARA is not viable into the future and not viable on MOD rotary work alone. It needs care and investment, it needs to win other business and it needs to use and exploit the skills that its work force clearly possess.
The objective of the proposals that we are developing with Vector Aerospace is to generate the best opportunity to secure the business and investment and thereby protect the skill base that is so important to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire and to our nation’s industrial capacity.
I cannot join my hon. Friend in Scotland tomorrow. I am the duty Minister here in the House. A day in Perthshire might be a lot more pleasant than hanging around waiting for the Whips to tell me what or what not to do. I hope that he will continue discussions about this important matter with Baroness Taylor tomorrow, and I hope that over time we will be able to allay some of his fears and those of the work force at DARA.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Six o’clock.