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RAF Aldergrove

Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2008

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

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr. Bayley. I know that it is a beautiful morning outside; nevertheless, we have our duties to do. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to introduce this important debate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is a privilege, Mr. Bayley, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) on securing this debate on an important topic in his constituency.

Job retention at military bases is often overlooked, because there is a tendency, particularly in Northern Ireland, to assume that it is an employment factor that was relevant during the troubles—of course, it was relevant, and it provided a sustainable backdrop for many people for 30 years. Hopefully, we are now reaching the point in Northern Ireland when a vicious page has been turned in a chapter of our history—we all hope and pray that that is occurring and that there will be no regress. That being so, the Government have a duty to assist Northern Ireland, whether in the case of the retention of RAF Aldergrove, which my hon. Friend and local people demand, or in the case of the adoption of other sites for utilisation in the local economy, which has been done in a few cases in Belfast and Londonderry and which could become an economic driver, if the MOD were flexible enough to allocate those bases free of charge to the Northern Ireland Executive. That has happened in a few cases, but it should happen in other cases, because we shall probably not have another such opportunity.

We have come through 35 years of tyranny and terror, and we are now almost in a hiatus with the economy still heavily dependent on the public sector, as my hon. Friend has outlined in relation to Antrim. We must promote the private sector in Northern Ireland, and this is a golden opportunity for the Government to assist communities in Northern Ireland. Retaining a base such as RAF Aldergrove and considering whether other bases could be handed over to the Executive for the private sector to provide sustainable, long-term employment will enable us all to enjoy a peaceful, prosperous and progressive Northern Ireland.

The base is associated with not only 30 years of trouble, but the 90 years of history from 1918 in which the RAF has been based in the Antrim area, so the issue goes far beyond the trouble. The trouble was a vital part—there was great personal danger—but when the nation called on the people of the United Kingdom, RAF Aldergrove was a vital part of the nation’s defence. I believe that my hon. Friend has referred to Massereene barracks. Another regiment is to be brought in and Massereene will be left vacant. I think that he was pointing out that the base should be handed over to the people of Northern Ireland, that is if the Minister does not change his mind—and I trust that he will—about RAF Aldergrove.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Indeed, one would have thought that 90 years of service would have merited more than simply the release of a statement. I would have thought that intensive consultation and discussion with the local Member of Parliament would have been a prerequisite. Perhaps the Minister will address that in his response.

In conclusion, I want the Minister to look at the overall concept in Northern Ireland and give a lifeline to Antrim and other places, such as Coleraine, Portadown and Belfast. If a lifeline were provided, the economy could be revitalised through a contribution from the Ministry of Defence. I hope that the Minister will review the MOD’s decision and assist us in our plight as we try to step out of a morass of violence and move into the 21st century.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) on securing this debate about an important issue in his constituency. The proposal will also have a spill-over effect on my constituency, because many of those employed in the civilian work force at Aldergrove live in the East Antrim area—indeed, a number of people have already come to my office to talk about the blow caused by the announcement. I would like the Minister to respond to a number of points. The fact that the announcement was made by written statement perhaps did not provide the opportunity for a closer examination of the decision and this debate at least gives the Minister the opportunity to respond to the relevant points that have been made.

I recognise that defence needs and public spending priorities change. I also recognise that the Northern Ireland economy needs to change—both speakers this morning have referred to that. The Executive of the Northern Ireland Assembly have prioritised moving away from public sector dependence to greater private sector involvement. That transition period will cause pain. The Executive already have grand plans to cut the public sector in Northern Ireland—for example, reviews of public administration, doing away with quangos, amalgamating councils and so on. That will move resources towards the private sector, but if on top of that, Northern Ireland receives a disproportionate reduction in public service employment from central Government at Westminster, the transition period will be made much more difficult and some areas will be badly hit.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim has mentioned, a decision about the Massereene site in Antrim has been made, and that will, of course, lead to reduced spending power as a result of a decrease in employment there. The loss of a population of about 1,100 people plus the civilian jobs that pump money into the local economy will have a downward multiplier effect at a time when changes and decisions are already being made in relation to public employment in the area by the Northern Ireland Executive.

The proposal will also have a sudden impact on local schools because a number of nearby schools are heavily dependent upon children from the base at Aldergrove. I cannot compare Aldergrove with other bases here in England, but I have toured the base on a number of occasions and seen its excellent facilities, which include not only workshops, hangars and mechanical resources, but excellent domestic housing facilities for service staff. After hearing about the conditions in which service staff are forced to live at some bases in this part of the United Kingdom, one must ask how far the total costs and benefits of the Aldergrove site were considered. How much of a business case was made and was Aldergrove compared with other sites in England before the decision was taken?

I have no doubt that there are economies of scale in bringing all those activities together, but, as my hon. Friend has asked, was a business case worked out for sourcing work done in England and bringing it to Northern Ireland? Aldergrove has the facilities, and it has excellent conditions for the personnel who work on the base. I have been in the houses of many of the personnel based at Aldergrove, and the facilities are first class. Will the Minister say whether it was simply a case of asking what savings could be made by closing Aldergrove, rather than looking at the opportunities to use such a cost-effective and well-resourced facility in Northern Ireland and considering whether some activities could be moved from other parts of the United Kingdom?

I would also like the Minister to indicate whether the MOD looked at the kind of adjustments that are already being required as a result of running down military bases across Northern Ireland? Historically, I know the reasons for that, and I am glad that we do not need the level of troop allocation to Northern Ireland that we did in the past because it shows that we are moving towards greater normality. As a result of the endeavours of members of our party, we are moving Northern Ireland away from a conflict situation towards a much more peaceful and bright future. That has necessarily caused adjustments to be made in constituencies all around Northern Ireland. I understand that this proposal is not related to the need to run down the security forces backing up the police in Northern Ireland and that it is part of the general adjustments being made.

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), let us remember that this base is not a conflict-related base. For 90 years, it has been an RAF base and therefore we are not talking about the general issues that would relate to other bases, but about something that is for the benefit of the United Kingdom as a whole.

That is exactly my point. I understand the run-down and that there is no point in keeping bases that were purely needed for the service personnel who dealt with the troubles. However, it is gratuitous that on top of the necessary removal of bases that are no longer needed because of the greater normality in Northern Ireland, reductions are to be made to a base that has existed for a long, long time and that has provided a service not directly related to the troubles. Again, the Ministry of Defence should have taken into consideration the fact that we have already borne a sizeable reduction in personnel and bases in Northern Ireland. The local economy has suffered as a result of those necessary adjustments, but the adjustments to Aldergrove are not necessary—particularly if no cost-benefit analysis was done to see how money or work could be reallocated to Northern Ireland to offset some of the cuts that have already been made.

In the long term, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) has pointed out, some military bases could be used to regenerate local economies. The Minister has received considerable representations about the base in Omagh, which people wish to use for an educational facility, bringing together five of the schools in the area. That will happen only if the base does not have to go out at market rates and if the commitment that the Government made to turn over many of these bases as an asset to the Northern Ireland Executive is fulfilled and the promise kept. There are many other such bases.

In the long run, the contraction of the RAF may mean that there is no use for the base at Aldergrove. The adjustment over time is important. That time adjustment may well lead to the base being made redundant in the very long term, but the current reduction, coming at a time when we have had all the other reductions in the armed services in Northern Ireland, is a reduction too far. I am sure that there is considerable economic potential in the longer run, with the development of Aldergrove airport and the plans for the area around it, but given the changes that are already occurring in the Northern Ireland economy, the decision that we are discussing will have a detrimental short-term impact. I believe that it is to lead to facilities being relocated to less desirable facilities elsewhere in the United Kingdom and that efficiency will suffer. If the Minister can tell me differently and show us that the costs have been carefully considered and that there are considerable benefits, I suppose that we will have to examine those figures, but the decision has been a blow.

I think that the decision is indicative of the way in which the Government at Westminster sometimes treat Northern Ireland. I do not think that something as important as this would have been done without consultation in an English constituency. For the Member for the area to hear about the matter on the news, rather than there being prior consultation, and for things to be done outside the normal parliamentary procedure—it is fortuitous that we have this debate today—has been regrettable and causes people in Northern Ireland to believe that sometimes they are an afterthought in these decisions, rather than part and parcel of the proper way in which governmental decisions should be made. I hope that that is not because there are no votes for the Government party in Northern Ireland and that it is therefore felt that Northern Ireland can be disregarded.

Rather than there being no votes, there could be very important votes in this House from Northern Ireland at the next election.

When I said “no votes”, I meant for the particular party, as it has refused to stand in Northern Ireland.

Indeed. I hope that it is not the case that people feel that Northern Ireland can be disregarded in that way because the governing party at present is not organised in that part of the United Kingdom. We are part of the United Kingdom. We believe that we should be treated in the same way as any other part of the United Kingdom and that, when major announcements such as this are being made, a proper consultation process should be undertaken.

It is an honour to follow three great speakers. This is my first foray into Northern Ireland politics and I will tread carefully—Scottish politics is complicated enough, and I do not regard myself as an expert on that. Westminster Hall debates are an interesting discipline, because they force us to examine and explore issues that we might not explore in our usual work in Parliament, and it has been very interesting to discover the rich history of the RAF Aldergrove base.

I have been on the Puma helicopters that are based at RAF Aldergrove. With the Select Committee on Defence, I flew over Baghdad last year and witnessed the extraordinary professionalism of the crew and pilots on those craft as they flew us over the city. They moved at a fair lick through the suburbs of Baghdad, which was probably the right thing to do at the time. When we got into the green zone, about 27 mortars came over the wall in the space of an hour, and that was supposed to be the safe area.

I wish to cover four issues this morning. Many points have been made already, but I wish to rehearse some of the arguments. The first issue is the technical, military aspects of the decision—the reasons behind the decision from an MOD perspective; the second is the political significance for Northern Ireland and wider politics; the third is the economic impact; and the fourth is the social impact. All four aspects are extremely important and must be considered in their own right.

The significant history of the RAF base has been referred to. It goes back over 90 years, to a time well before the recent troubles. It played a role during the second world war in the battle of the Atlantic, when reconnaissance aircraft from the base searched for U-boats. For the V-bombers, it was one of only 26 airfields in the UK in 1962. So the base has played a very important role in the past, as well as in more recent times in Northern Ireland.

The RAF Aldergrove website, which I have been scrutinising over the past few days, clearly states:

“Aldergrove is now home to a mixed force of helicopters, which operate across the province in support of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.”

However, it is clearly stated on the BBC website, although not in the Minister’s statement to the House in April, that the cutback

“is unconnected with the peace process reductions in troop levels and base closures which were finally completed in Northern Ireland by the MOD last autumn.”

I find it quite difficult to believe that the decision is nothing to do with the peace process, when the role of the base was clearly to do with supporting the PSNI. I would therefore like the Minister to clarify whether the move is part of the peace process. Perhaps it is not part of the technical troop withdrawal, but is it part of the wider peace process? If it is, we should be open about that and make it clear in the statements.

If the move is connected with the military aspects, we need more explanation of why a single site is required now when that did not seem to be an imperative at an earlier stage, during the troubles. The Minister needs to be clear about the justification for the single site. If there is a requirement for a single site, which military experts may recommend, was Aldergrove considered—the excellent housing facilities there were mentioned—especially given that there is a profusion of military bases in the south-east of England? It may not be now, but that was part of the overheated south-east economy. Would it not have been better to consider Aldergrove as part of the job dispersal programme that the Government are keen on, so that the wider needs of the community in the UK as well as Northern Ireland were considered and not just the narrow needs of the MOD? Was wider consideration given, as opposed to the restrictive silo mentality that has often marked various Departments?

Was there a requirement for a single site? If so, why was Aldergrove not chosen, if it was considered at all? Will the Minister also explain why Massereene is being closed and why the Engineers will be going from there to Aldergrove? What will the Massereene site be used for? I would like the Minister to go into some of those matters.

I found the contributions of other hon. Members extremely interesting, as there are many parallels in my part of the world as the result of a transition from coal mining and dockyard operations to more private sector involvement. Such a transition is difficult, so it is important that we have a plan and that we do not have various Departments making different decisions at different times, without the whole picture being considered. It is important that the Minister addresses those points.

The second aspect is the political impact of closure. As we heard, there has been a bit of a political scrap between the various Unionist parties in Northern Ireland about who was consulted and who was not. If the Northern Ireland Executive are to operate effectively, it is vital that they are consulted and included in the decision-making process. Was the First Minister of Northern Ireland consulted? Why was the MP for the area not included in the early notification process? If he had been, he would have been prepared and ready to ask questions before the decision was finally announced.

Does the Minister find it significant that there will be no RAF base in Northern Ireland? That is an important historical point, which we should consider before making the final decision. There are many bases elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and the people of Northern Ireland will be puzzled about why Northern Ireland is the only place with no base. Some RAF personnel and the Army Air Corps will be based at Aldergrove, but it will be a significant change from having had an RAF base established there for more than 90 years to no longer having a base. That point should be noted and the Minister should reflect on its wider significance.

Various figures on how many jobs will be lost have been bandied about—mainly ranging between 100 and 140. Does the Minister have any information on that? What support will be put in place to ensure that those people have the best opportunities made available to them?

I apologise for referring to Scotland so regularly, but there we have the PACE—partnership action for continuing employment—team. Jobcentre Plus, local councils, the enterprise agencies and others get together as a hit team. They support personnel, such as those from the Lexmark factory in my constituency who have lost their jobs, and they provide round-the-clock support with CV writing and training; they also offer advice on what further training might be available elsewhere. Is similar provision made in Northern Ireland, and if not, can it be put in place? What role does the Ministry of Defence play in providing such support for people who are to lose their job?

We have heard that 1,100 personnel, families and support staff may move out of the area. If we were to lose 1,000 people from my constituency, we would know about it. We would feel the impact on the local economy, as people would no longer be spending money and would not be using the local post office, the local shops or the local library. What measures will be put in place to support the community? I do not know how widely dispersed those people are in the area, or whether they live close together.

The written statement about the massive change that will come about if the Minister goes ahead states that unions will be consulted. Removing 1,100 people from a community will cause serious economic problems, but there was no mention of consultation with the borough council or the community on how they would pick up the pieces afterward. The unions are to be consulted about the 140 jobs, but it seems that no one else has the right to be consulted.

I sometimes think that the 90-day consultation with unions is a proxy for real consultation; it is sometimes a bit too strict and does not enter into the spirit of the wider consultation that is required. We should look in a more holistic way at involving councils and others in the area in order to ensure that they understand the consequences and engage in a transition strategy to deal with the loss of 1,100 people. The hon. Gentleman makes a most relevant point. It is essential that the Minister explains what wider consultation there will be beyond the trade unions; consultation is vital, but it needs to be wider to cover the economic impact on the area.

We also need to ensure that mitigation measures are in place. What extra support can be supplied to councils and the enterprise agencies to ensure that alternatives, such as business start-ups, can be put in place? We need to utilise the skills not only of the base personnel who are to lose their jobs, but of those who support the base in the wider sense, as I have no doubt that there will be further job losses.

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

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

“These staff have been integral in the normalization process within our society. They established good community links, worked closely with local sporting groups”—

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

“and organized educational trips for schools.”

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

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

I, too, am delighted to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The relocation of 230 Squadron will free up significant facilities at Aldergrove. Those include not only office and hangar space, but family quarters, single living accommodation and welfare facilities of a high standard, as hon. Members have mentioned in the debate. Having reviewed the options available, we have concluded that we will make best use of the defence estate and deliver the best quality of life for our personnel if 38 Engineer Regiment, which will move to Massereene barracks in Antrim later this year, relocates to Aldergrove once 230 Squadron has departed. We will still use that good estate that hon. Members have talked about. Aldergrove will remain a base, although of course it will primarily be an Army base. It is only about five miles from Massereene to Aldergrove, so some people will want to go, and some facilities associated with Massereene will still be usable. The move will allow the consolidation of 38 Engineer Regiment’s technical and domestic accommodation on one site and enable the unit to benefit more fully from the additional facilities available at the larger site. As the hon. Member for South Antrim is aware, that will remove the requirement to retain the Massereene barracks. While he may regret that decision, I am sure that he shares the Department’s objective of making the best use of available defence estate and infrastructure and delivering the greatest possible coherence for our units and the best possible quality of life for our military personnel.

As to the matter of gifting the base, all I can say is that Democratic Unionist party Members know that their party leader raised the issue at Prime Minister’s questions, and they heard that the Prime Minister was prepared to meet him to discuss it. My view is that we need the receipt to pay for the many facilities and necessities in the Ministry of Defence. We are dependent on the estate. However, I cannot pre-empt the discussion that will take place between the leader of the DUP and the Prime Minister, and I do not know what agreements they will reach.

For staff whose posts are removed, such as those whose posts are associated exclusively with the security and maintenance of the Massereene barracks or for personnel unable to relocate to Aldergrove with 38 Engineer Regiment, everything possible will be done to find acceptable alternative employment in the Ministry of Defence. Where redundancies are inevitable, we will pursue voluntary release on compulsory terms, as we have done successfully in the current civilian draw-down associated with normalisation. It is our intention to make every effort to avoid compulsory redundancy. The Ministry of Defence will, in any case, remain a significant employer within the Antrim area.

The hon. Member for South Antrim has talked about 140 redundancies, but it will be much less than that. We want to retain many people at Aldergrove, which we want to develop. Some of the people who are associated with the basing at Massereene will be given the opportunity to redeploy, but their jobs will not exist if we close the Massereene barracks. However, that would involve fewer redundancies than the 140 figure that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. We estimate that there will be fewer than 100 job losses. That, of course, will be subject to consultation with the trade unions, which is starting now.

Does the Minister appreciate the serious economic implications of the removal of the RAF personnel and their families from the constituency? The important points include not only the job losses, but the loss of 1,000 people and their buying power from the constituency.

The hon. Gentleman is right. Of course that will have an impact, but we are moving to a position in which we shall base 19 Light Brigade in Northern Ireland. The move into Aldergrove will facilitate part of that, so Aldergrove will continue to be used, and families will be based in Northern Ireland. Of course, the numbers will fluctuate, depending on whether those mostly Army personnel are deployed or home-based in Northern Ireland at any given time, but there will still be considerable activity at Aldergrove, which will replace what has gone on there to date, and there will be a commitment to the site by the MOD over a considerable time.

To deal further with the future of Aldergrove as a military base, the announcement in the House on 30 January 2006 by the then Secretary of State for Defence of the move of 19 Light Brigade from Catterick to Northern Ireland demonstrated our commitment to basing significant units in Northern Ireland. As the hon. Member for South Antrim may be aware, two key units of 19 Brigade are already in place: 2 Rifles in Ballykinler and 2 Mercian in Holywood. Further units will arrive over the coming months: 40 Regiment Royal Artillery, 38 Engineer Regiment, the Combat Service Support Regiment and the headquarters of 19 Light Brigade. Just as the relocation clearly demonstrates our commitment to basing in Northern Ireland, the decision to relocate 38 Engineer Regiment to Aldergrove clearly demonstrates our commitment to maintaining a base there.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Antrim for seeking the debate. I am sorry that he was upset about the consultation process, but the House was told the news in the normal way, following the normal procedures, and the hon. Gentleman’s constituency was treated in much the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom.