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RAF Marham

Volume 518: debated on Thursday 11 November 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Dunne.)

I am delighted to have secured this Adjournment debate today on an issue that is critical not only for my constituents but for Norfolk as a whole and, more broadly, for East Anglia. There has been a lot of talk over the past few weeks about the future basing of the Tornado aircraft. These discussions have involved high politics, not least because we are in the run-up to the Scottish elections. I want to talk today about how the decision ought to be based on military and economic criteria, taking into account issues such as employment and deprivation. We cannot allow this debate to be dominated by politics. On this day of all days, as we pay tribute to our brave service personnel, it is important that their needs should be taken into account.

RAF Marham was established in 1916 to defend us against the German zeppelins. Its personnel fought in the first world war, the second world war and, more recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a great deal of anxiety about their future among the personnel at the base, some of whom have recently returned from Afghanistan.

I had the privilege of visiting RAF Marham recently as part of the all-party parliamentary armed forces scheme, and of meeting members of the Tornado squadron there. That squadron has been in combat for almost six years solid, and it makes a big contribution to our activities in Afghanistan. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is up to us to support it by giving it some stability?

That is exactly how I feel. The 2 Squadron recently returned to a heroes welcome in Swaffham, and I know how important it is for the local community and for those people who are based at RAF Marham that this decision be taken properly and rationally. We cannot play politics with people’s jobs and with our nation’s defences.

Among the key features of RAF Marham are the engineering and maintenance facilities based there. There is a high level of expertise, on the industry side and on the military side, which has taken years to develop. Indeed, there were previously eight separate locations for the maintenance and engineering facilities, but they have been consolidated at RAF Marham. I understand that those facilities are one third more efficient than their US counterparts in manpower terms. Over the years, they have saved billions of pounds for the Exchequer. To move those facilities elsewhere would cost at least £50 million, simply because of the levels of hardware and personnel involved.

My hon. Friend visited RAF Marham with me earlier this year. Will she reflect on what we were told by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce engineers about the specialist layout for depth maintenance at Marham, which cannot be replicated elsewhere because of the size of the facilities?

My hon. Friend has made a good point about the facilities, but I am thinking not only about the facilities but about the staff. I fear that, at a time when we are involved in a conflict in Afghanistan, moving the skills base—as well as the physical presence to which my hon. Friend has referred—would be dangerous and costly, and I do not think that we can afford to do it.

RAF Marham has built up a tremendous skills base locally. Unfortunately, the area suffers from relatively high unemployment and deprivation, and the skills and jobs at RAF Marham are very important to local people. I recently visited Hamond’s high school, where many young people told me of their aspirations to join the Royal Air Force and become engineers. It would be disastrous to remove such a source of aspiration for young people from that area at this time. Many young people take up apprenticeships at RAF Marham, and it has built up tremendous support in the community.

I am very pleased that so many of my hon. Friends from Norfolk, East Anglia and elsewhere are in the Chamber. All nine Norfolk Members of Parliament—and let me point out to the Minister that they are all flying the coalition colours—have backed RAF Marham, because they know how important it is to the Norfolk economy. All eight councils in Norfolk, controlled by all three major parties, have also come out in support of RAF Marham as part of our “Make it Marham” campaign. I believe that in due course a petition will be presented to the Secretary of State and at No. 10 Downing street. That is not to mention the town mayors and the local businesses, which will be affected by any change.

There is a huge degree of local support for RAF Marham, and a huge amount of local pride has been invested in it. However, it is not just a question of the support that it commands locally. There is also the military presence that it affords, and the location that it provides for the conflict in which we are engaged in Afghanistan. It is possible to fly from RAF Marham to our forward operating base in Cyprus without the need for in-flight refuelling. That does not apply to other air force bases, and I think it is an important factor. RAF Marham is also well located for our United States allies in Lakenheath and Mildenhall.

RAF Marham has the RAPTOR—Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for Tornado—system, which my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and I saw during our visit, and also a tactical imagery intelligence wing, which produces high-quality images that are used not only by our service personnel but by our key allies. A large amount of important equipment and military intelligence is collected there. During the current conflict, we hear a great deal about the ground forces but slightly less about the role of the Tornado, because it is rather more secret and not open to public view in the same way. As was said earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), we ought to support what those people are doing.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her hard work in support of RAF Marham, which affects a number of our hon. Friends. If RAF Marham were to close completely, only one Ministry of Defence base would remain in Norfolk—at Swanton Morley, a former RAF base that is now the base of the Light Dragoons. There is a lot of concern in Norfolk. RAF Coltishall, part of which is in my constituency, closed six years ago, but 80% of the base—now owned by the Ministry of Justice—has still not been taken over. The fear has always been that RAF Marham would be left on its own. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether, if either RAF Lossiemouth or RAF Marham lost the RAF operational element, any of the military units from the United Kingdom support division would go into whichever base was closed.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the detrimental effect of the closures that we have already seen in Norfolk and East Anglia. I should like the Minister to consider the future of RAF Marham when the Tornado is retired. My understanding of the 2005 report on the joint strike fighter is that RAF Marham was considered a suitable option for the JSF. As the equipment is modified and—I am given to understand—the noise levels would be lower, it might be a potential future location, so we could continue building on our excellent engineering and maintenance facilities.

On my hon. Friend’s point about the JSF, because Marham has an extra-long runway it could be used by a wide variety of aircraft, not just the JSF. Also, when we were there, we saw an enormous amount of expensive work, paid for with taxpayers’ money, being done to refurbish the runway.

That is right, and my hon. Friend makes a very good point about the amount of taxpayers’ money that has already been invested. I agree that that would be wasted if we were to give up on even an alternative Ministry of Defence use for Marham, which is so specialist in the RAF. That is an extremely important point.

We have had a long discussion about the economic and military value of RAF Marham, and I thank my colleagues for their interventions, but I also want to talk about its economic value locally and the key factors for west Norfolk, about which I know my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), who is present today, is also well aware.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate on this of all days. I have absolutely no axe to grind as I live some distance from Norfolk and represent a constituency that is a great distance away. I also congratulate the hon. Lady on her delicate approach to this issue, but does she agree that it is crucial in the review that community is not set against community and that the MOD makes decisions on their merits? It is important that all communities behave in as dignified a way as the hon. Lady has this evening.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and I think that is absolutely right. No MP wants to see the source of much local employment and pride in their constituency closed down. I fully appreciate that, and I know that Opposition Members are genuine in the case they might make for the base in their constituency. However, I want to make the case today that RAF Marham is located in an area with particularly high unemployment and deprivation, and I will draw the comparison with Lossiemouth. The unemployment rate in the west Norfolk borough is 7.4%, whereas in Moray in Scotland it is 4.8%, so west Norfolk has significantly higher deprivation. We should also look at the skills levels: 15% of the population in west Norfolk do not have any qualifications, compared with 9.6% in Moray.

I am sorry, but I will not give way again, as I have already taken a number of interventions.

There is also a higher proportion of children on free school meals in west Norfolk. I say that not to denigrate other bases, because I accept that no MP wants bases closing in their area, but to make the point to the Minister that west Norfolk has relatively high unemployment and deprivation, and that ought to be taken into account. I should also point out that more people are employed at RAF Marham than at Lossiemouth and Kinloss combined. More than 5,000 people are employed at RAF Marham, as against 2,300 at Lossiemouth and 1,800 at Kinloss. Those statistics also need to be taken into account when the decision is made.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point that all areas are suffering from their own difficulties, but it would be wrong for those very high levels of unemployment and deprivation not to be taken into account in the national debate just because some parts of the country shout louder than others. That is a concern to me, because it is very important that this decision is made on proper grounds—military grounds, economic grounds and the grounds of the public purse. This should not be about politics trumping economics; it should be about a secure skills base for communities—in my case, in west Norfolk—and a secure military future for our country, and in this instance not just for the Tornado force, but for the JSF moving into the future.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) on initiating this debate on the future of RAF Marham which, as the House will understand, is of great importance to her constituency. I thank her for her words of praise for the men and women of our armed forces and the Ministry of Defence civilians who support them. This is a special day for our armed forces. It is a day when the whole nation joins together to remember their sacrifices, and I paid my respects at the national memorial arboretum this morning. The armed forces memorial is sobering, as engraved upon it are the names of more than 15,000 of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for this country, and more names are being added each year. I cannot pay high enough tribute to our armed forces, to what they have done in the past, to what they are doing in the present and to the remarkable professionalism, courage and resolve that I know they will continue to show in the future.

Given the subject of this debate, I should like to pay particular tribute to all those who work at RAF Marham and to the local community, who have, over the years, given such strong support to the station, the RAF and the nation. As my hon. Friend said, RAF Marham has a long and honourable history. During the second world war, it operated as a bomber station and in the post-war period it has also acted as a base for air-to-air refuelling aircraft. Today, it is the RAF’s largest fast-jet station and it is home to a significant element of the RAF’s offensive air capability, operating four Tornado GR4 squadrons, which carry out attack and reconnaissance roles. Other force elements based at RAF Marham include the Tactical Imagery Intelligence Wing, 3 Force Protection Wing Headquarters and 93 Expeditionary Armament Squadron. RAF Marham is also a centre of engineering excellence, providing engineering support to the Tornado GR4 fleet. All together, RAF Marham is one of the largest employers in Norfolk, with a total of more than 4,000 service personnel, MOD civilians, and contractors working there.

Last month, we published the strategic defence and security review, which was based on two clear priorities: protecting our mission in Afghanistan; and setting the path to a coherent and affordable defence capability in 2020 and beyond. The Government have made clear our determination to address the unprecedented fiscal deficit we inherited. Every Department has had to make its own contribution and the MOD is playing its part. Because of the priority we place on security, the defence budget is making a more modest contribution to deficit reduction relative to many other Departments, but even so, regrettably, this has meant tough decisions. The SDSR process aims to bring defence plans, commitments and resources into balance. It is painful, but we have to make sacrifices to get the economy and the defence programme back on track.

Our fleet of Harrier and Tornado air defence and ground attack aircraft have performed magnificently over the past 30 years, but those aircraft risk becoming outdated as threats continue to become more varied and sophisticated, and maintenance of the fleets will become an increasing challenge. So, RAF plans to make a transition to a fast-jet force comprising just the Typhoon and the joint strike fighter by 2021 make operational and economic sense. The decisions to retire our Harriers and to reduce the number of Tornados involved very difficult choices, which we had to make to focus resources where they are most needed: in support of current operations. The Tornado GR4 force, even at its reduced size, will be significantly larger than the current Harrier force. So retaining the more capable Tornado allows continuous fast-jet support to forces in Afghanistan and the ability to support concurrent operations. That would not be possible if Harrier were retained and Tornado retired.

We know from our work on the SDSR that RAF Kinloss and two other bases will no longer be required by the RAF. I can understand that that will be cause for some concern at Marham, as it is elsewhere in the country with ties to the Air Force. Of course, this is not just about fast jets—nor is it even just about the RAF. The decision on Tornado basing will have to take into account wider RAF and defence requirements. For example, the Prime Minister announced our intention to accelerate the re-basing of the Army from Germany, which also needs to be taken into account.

The Ministry of Defence will need to determine what makes the most sense for the structure of our armed forces, including where they are based, where they need to train and operate from and ensuring value for money for the British taxpayer. However, no decisions have been taken on our future basing requirements beyond those that I have just outlined. It will take time to work out which of the bases we retain and the uses to which they are put. In that work, we will also look beyond those bases directly affected by the SDSR decisions.

My hon. Friend has reminded us of the importance of RAF Marham as the Tornado force headquarters and of the wider economic and social position of RAF Marham in the south-west Norfolk community. We have also had similar representations from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) regarding RAF Leuchars and from the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) regarding RAF Lossiemouth. The MOD has also received submissions from the Moray taskforce. The thousands of people who marched in Lossiemouth on Sunday reminded us, if we needed reminding, of the strength of feeling these decisions generate in local communities.

So we know that these are important decisions and that we must get them right. I know—and regret—that this means uncertainty for the people and communities concerned. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk made that point powerfully, and it is understood, but I emphasise to her again that there is no proposal to close RAF Marham. The issue has to be seen in the context that I have just described.

We will not rush to a conclusion without proper analysis. It will take time for us to reach the right decision. As the SDSR states, we will aim to do so in a way that is sensitive to economic and social pressures and the needs of our people and their families. We also want to make sure that any decisions fully consider the implications for Tornado personnel operating in Afghanistan over the coming year as well as their families. It is therefore unlikely that any decisions on Tornado basing will be taken before next spring at the earliest. We will of course listen to any representation from local communities as we work through our decision. As and when it proves necessary, we will work with all the relevant agencies and the local communities to manage the local impact of our decisions.

The SDSR announcement marked the beginning, not the end, of a process that will transform our armed forces to meet the challenges of the future. That includes decisions on all military estates, such as RAF Marham. Further work is now needed to establish how we will deliver the SDSR’s findings.

The hon. Gentleman is a decent Minister. Will he assure all the communities affected that the Ministry will work quickly and that when the decision is made, the communities will be the first to know, so that the media do not—through whatever process—discover before the three or four affected communities?

I certainly give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that we will try to make sure that that happens in an orderly fashion, as he describes. I must stress, however, that as this process involves an estate review across defence, more than three or four communities will have an interest. It is a very big piece of work. Of course we will endeavour to do things quickly but, as I have stressed, there will be a detailed and comprehensive study across not only the whole of the RAF but defence as a whole. It will consider the issues I have discussed, including where units that come back from Germany might be based. We will do it as quickly as we can, but I do not want to mislead him into thinking that that means he will get an outcome any time soon.

We need to do further work to establish the detail of how to progress, but I am determined that at the end of the process, the United Kingdom will have the capabilities it needs to keep our people safe, to meet our responsibilities to our allies and friends and to secure our national interests. As they were in the SDSR, our decisions have to be objective, unsentimental and based on the military advice we receive. We need to focus finite resources where they are most needed. We know that the armed forces will be smaller and that, as the RAF reduces its number of fast jets, it will inevitably need fewer flying stations. Although the RAF might become leaner, we can maximise investment in new aircraft, as well as assuring full support to current and contingent operations. The transition to the combined fast-jet fleet of joint strike fighters and Typhoon will certainly provide the RAF with world-class capability for the future. My hon. Friend has called on the Government to base their decisions on military necessity, the realities of the public purse and the socio-economic impact on the areas affected and I assure her that that is precisely what we intend to do.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.