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RAF Leuchars

Volume 522: debated on Tuesday 25 January 2011

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

I am glad to have the opportunity to initiate the debate on the future of Royal Air Force Leuchars, which lies near St Andrews in my constituency of North East Fife. A number of other hon. Members have indicated a wish to make short interventions, and I am happy that they should do so. In addition, I have the authority of the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) to say that he supports the campaign for the retention of the base.

I want to begin with the recognition of the professionalism and commitment of the men and women who serve at RAF Leuchars, who in recent weeks have endured a period of unnecessary anxiety. I particularly wish to pay tribute to those members of 111 Squadron, whose time at Leuchars will come to an end in March, and who have served the defence interests of the nation with distinction and effectiveness. The reason why I say “unnecessary anxiety” is this. I believe that the case for the retention of RAF Leuchars is overwhelming. In short, Leuchars is in the right place at the right time and doing the right job. Geographically, it is uniquely positioned to fulfil the responsibility for the air defence of the northern half of the United Kingdom, a responsibility which, even as we have this debate, it fulfils 24 hours a day. In particular, that responsibility now has to deal with the terrorist threat, which is recognised in the strategic defence review as a tier 1 threat, and therefore one against which the most serious precautions need to be taken.

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that that contribution has been further strengthened by the £27 million investment in the runway, the designation of Leuchars as the home base for the Eurofighter Typhoon squadrons, and the excellent performance of the quick reaction alert force? In other words, RAF Leuchars is a strategic necessity for the effective defence of the UK.

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I shall come to all the elements he referred to in a moment.

Why was Leuchars chosen? It was chosen to fulfil the responsibilities that the hon. Gentleman has just described, and because 80% of the Scottish population lives within 80 miles of Leuchars. Aircraft from RAF Leuchars can be over Edinburgh and Glasgow, the two major cities of Scotland’s central belt, within a matter of a few minutes. Leuchars also has the capacity to protect the two most sensitive installations within that area: the nuclear power station at Torness, and the Trident submarine base at Faslane. But we would do wrong to consider that the responsibilities of Leuchars extend only to Scotland, because the arc of responsibility of this air defence base extends far into northern England—as far as Sunderland, some have said—covering substantial populated areas.

Is it not the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s understanding that the coverage also extends as far as Northern Ireland? I believe that it does, but perhaps he could give confirmation.

I have been approaching this matter on the basis of the speed of deployment within certain arcs. I understand that the approach is to take the base as the centre and then draw a circle, but there is no doubt that, because of its operations over the sea, there may well be occasions when RAF Leuchars would be deployed for the purpose of protecting interests in Northern Ireland.

I have heard no strategic argument for the closure of RAF Leuchars. The strategic case for its retention is exactly the same as the strategic case for its selection for the role that it now plays. It has been chosen to be the home of three Typhoon squadrons, one of which, 6 Squadron, is already in place there. The case stood up on 6 September, a few days before one of the last surviving air shows, which drew a crowd of some 50,000 people. That made it the second largest non-sporting event in Scotland—the largest is a rock festival entitled T in the Park. The fact that 50,000 people are able to go and want to go is a reflection, of course, on the base’s geographical position adjacent to the main centres of population.

RAF Leuchars was chosen for its role because it has ready access to training areas over land and over the North sea. It was chosen because the local weather—its particular climate—is very suitable for flying operations. As the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy) said, Leuchars has been chosen to perform two essential components of the quick reaction alert, or QRA. The first is to protect northern Britain from unwelcome and illegal intrusion into United Kingdom airspace, which it is called upon to do on an almost regular number of occasions as other air forces seek to determine the state of readiness of the Royal Air Force to defend the UK’s airspace.

The second part of the QRA is the duty that RAF Leuchars has to protect us from terrorist attack from the air and stop any malign effort to do damage to the fabric or population of the United Kingdom. Only a few years ago that possibility would have been thought so remote as not to be regarded but, unhappily, it now has to be given more serious consideration because of the attack on the twin towers and its consequences.

RAF Leuchars was chosen, therefore, because the established strategic considerations were favourable, and they remain so. It was chosen because the fact that 80% of the Scottish population live within 80 miles demonstrates that it provides the immediacy of protection required. As 111 Squadron, to which I have referred, comes to the end of its service at Leuchars, 6 Squadron will take over. The 111 Squadron has been flying the Tornado F-3, an aircraft that has given us valiant service since its introduction. It is to be replaced by the Typhoon, formerly the Eurofighter, the most modern and up to date of aircraft available to the Royal Air Force.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is making an extremely strong case for the retention of Leuchars, which the Scottish National party supports. May I ask him to ensure that we do not allow the Government to play Lossiemouth off against Leuchars and to make the case for the retention of all the capacity we have and against the overall reduction of the RAF footprint in Scotland?

I am an advocate for my constituency, but I am also an advocate for the proper disposition of defence installations throughout the whole of Scotland. As the hon. Gentleman knows, when there have been occasions at Lossiemouth and opportunities for joint political action in Scotland, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, Tavish Scott, has been present. The hon. Gentleman allows me to make another point, which is that the case for Leuchars and its retention is supported by members of all political parties and of none. I shall refer to that a little further when I come to discuss the impact on the local community. As 111 Squadron, flying the Tornado, has disbanded, 6 Squadron, flying the Typhoon, will take over. It is already fulfilling the responsibilities of the quick reaction alert. At new year, one of the Typhoons had to be scrambled to fulfil the obligation of the QRA. Between them, the two squadrons are working up to the point at which 6 Squadron will resume responsibility and 111 Squadron will stand down.

Leuchars is also a centre of defence excellence. Apart from 6 Squadron and 111 Squadron, it houses 71 TA Engineer Regiment—I know that will interest you, Mr Deputy Speaker, because of your interest in the Territorial Army—58 Squadron RAF Regiment, 612 Auxiliary Surgical Squadron, recently back from Afghanistan, the Universities Air Squadrons in Scotland, the air cadets and mountain rescue. Shortly, in March 2011, No. 6 RAF Force Protection Wing will accompany 58 Squadron to Afghanistan. I take this public opportunity to wish them Godspeed and a safe return.

Of course, the speculation has brought about great uncertainty in the local community. An economic impact study is in the course of being prepared by Fife council and I understand that it might be published within the next few days. I shall ensure that the Minister receives a copy hot off the press. We all know that the closure of any base has an impact, but let me illustrate the nature of the impact to which the closure of Leuchars might give rise. In the Leuchars primary school, more than 80% of the children come from RAF families, and in the nearby village of Guardbridge, a substantial percentage of the children are also from RAF families. There is a long history and tradition of integration between the base and the local community, with a heavy accent on charitable activity, all of which helps to create a bond of friendship and respect between community and base. A new community centre has recently been opened outside the wire so that it can be available to both military and civilians. I had the honour to open it in October of last year. A little more mundanely, but of great practical assistance, during the recent snowstorms, personnel from RAF Leuchars were deployed to Edinburgh to help to clear the environs of hospitals so that patients and ambulances could gain easier access.

The arrival of 6 Squadron did not take place without some consequences, which are to be found in the costs. As the hon. Member for Glenrothes said, the runway has been resurfaced. A new building programme has nearly been completed and I saw evidence of that on Monday when I visited the base in the company of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. Reasonable estimates are that some £40 million has been spent on RAF Leuchars in recent years and as part of these preparations. In addition, there is intensive training not only for air crew but for engineer and ground support. Leuchars is also to be subject to additional investment in information technology for the purpose of improving communications, which are so essential to the successful deployment of military force.

Ministers have consistently said that decisions about Royal Air Force bases will be made on sound defence principles. I have asked myself, and I ask the Government, what sound defence principle justifies reversing the recently made and paid for decision to deploy three squadrons of Eurofighter Typhoon at Leuchars, confirming Leuchars as an essential component of the UK’s air defence? That responsibility has for many years been fulfilled from that base with professionalism, commitment and distinction. I have an alternative principle to offer the Ministry of Defence: if it’s not broke, then don’t fix it.

I thank the Minister and the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) for giving me a short time to make additional comments. I congratulate the right hon. and learned Gentleman on securing the debate. He has been a long-standing champion of both the community and the military in Fife. He is respected a great deal on both sides of the House for his tireless work. He has mentioned the cross-party support that exists in Fife and Tayside, and it is comforting that Members from both sides of the House and from across the water are present.

I echo the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s comments about the vital role that servicemen and women continue to play at home and overseas at this very difficult time. The Minister will recall that when we had a similar debate in November on the future of RAF Marham, I counselled Members on both sides of the House to conduct the debate in a sensible and considered manner so that we did not end up with communities being pitted against one another. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has done a superb job of articulating his case without seeking to disparage the case of another base that might be under threat.

The Minister will be aware of the concern among Members of all parties that there is some confusion about the Government’s thinking and the priorities that might be afforded to decision making. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury has suggested that decisions might be made on a socio-economic basis, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have said that the decisions will be financial and the Minister and the Secretary of State have said they will be defence-driven. I hope that the Minister will give some clarity as to the weighting that will be given to each of those categories.

The Minister will also be aware, as I am sure are you, Mr Deputy Speaker, of the Opposition’s proposals to place the base closure programme on to a statutory footing in the Armed Forces Bill. I do not seek to rehearse the arguments that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) and I had on that Bill’s Second Reading, except to say that all the communities up and down the UK under some threat of base closure would benefit if the Government accepted an amendment to the Bill that would provide a transparent and clear process. It would be helpful if the Minister could outline tonight the Government’s latest thinking on whether they are prepared to accept such an amendment.

My final question for the Minister is about the continued uncertainty, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has mentioned, about the time scales for the decision-making process. There was a rather regrettable incident before Christmas in which a Scottish newspaper seemed to have acquired fairly coherent information about decisions that might have been made. Hon. Members will recall the Standing Order 24 debate that we had about that. It would help if the Minister outlined what the timetable for any such decision will be. Will he also guarantee to do all in his power to ensure that the communities affected, rather than media outlets, will be the first to know?

I commend my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) for initiating this debate on the future of RAF Leuchars which, as the House will understand, is a subject of great importance to his constituency and more widely. My right hon. and learned Friend knows Leuchars very well, and I hope that during his visit yesterday with the Secretary of State for Scotland he saw once more what a fantastic job our personnel are doing.

I put on record my thanks to all those who work at RAF Leuchars and to the local community who have, over the years, given such strong support to the station, the RAF and the nation. I know this support is appreciated by all who are serving at the base.

RAF Leuchars has a long and honourable history. Aircraft from Leuchars have policed UK airspace for nearly 60 years, demonstrating the ability to intercept unidentified aircraft and thereby provide an effective deterrent. Given RAF Leuchars’ history and contribution to defence, it is understandable that my right hon. and learned Friend has spoken so passionately about its retention, both here in Parliament and in representations to me and to the Secretary of State.

In October, we published the strategic defence and security review, which was based on two clear priorities: supporting our mission in Afghanistan and setting the path to a coherent and affordable defence capability in 2020 and beyond. This took place against the Government’s clear determination to address the unprecedented fiscal deficit that we inherited. Every Department has had to make a contribution, and the Ministry of Defence is playing its part, but because of the priority that we place on security, the defence budget is making a more modest contribution to deficit reduction than many other Departments. Even so, this has regrettably meant tough decisions. 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 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 the decisions to retire the Harriers and to reduce the number of Tornados were difficult, but we have to focus resources where they are most needed now—in support of our current operations.

The RAF plans to make a transition to a fast-jet force comprising the Typhoon and the joint strike fighter by the end of the decade. This makes both operational and economic sense. We know from our work on the SDSR that RAF Kinloss and two other bases will no longer be needed by the RAF. Public and parliamentary attention has focused on the consequences for Tornado ground attack bases at RAF Lossiemouth in Moray and RAF Marham in Norfolk, and the Typhoon and Tornado fighter base at RAF Leuchars.

Today, RAF Leuchars’ mission is to deliver and maintain UK quick reaction alert (interceptor) north, concurrent with the growth of Typhoon, while supporting other military operations. The delivery of the northern element of quick reaction alert is RAF Leuchars’ top priority and requires Typhoon and Tornado F3 fighter aircraft to hold high alert to scramble and intercept unidentified aircraft approaching UK airspace. RAF Leuchars is geographically well located for the delivery of QRA operations. However, it may be possible to mount northern QRA from another location. Lossiemouth and Leeming in north Yorkshire would be possible options.

As well as the support for RAF Leuchars offered by my right hon. and learned Friend this evening, I have had similar representations from the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) regarding RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth, and from my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) regarding RAF Marham. It is essential to stress once again to the House that a decision on which of these bases will no longer be required by the RAF should not be taken to mean that they will no longer be required for defence purposes. We are now taking forward work to analyse the basing and estate consequences of the SDSR in their entirety, and to develop a coherent plan for the future of the whole defence estate. This piece of work goes well beyond the bases directly affected by the SDSR. For example, the Prime Minister has announced our intention to accelerate the rebasing of the Army from Germany, which must also be taken into account, along with the greater efficiencies that must be made through broader estate rationalisation.

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 the need to ensure value for money for the British taxpayer. Contrary to media speculation, no matter how well informed Members might have believed it to be, no decisions have been taken on our future basing requirements beyond those I have outlined. It will take time to work out which bases we will retain and the uses to which they will be put.

We know that these are important decisions and that we must get them right. The Ministry of Defence has been clear, and I repeat, that we do not expect that work to be concluded for some time yet, but we hope it will be by the summer. I know and regret that that means uncertainty for the people and communities concerned, but we will not rush to a conclusion without deep and proper analysis. 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 ensure that any decisions fully take into consideration the implications for Tornado personnel operating in Afghanistan over the coming year and for their families. We are consulting other Departments, the Scottish Government, local communities and relevant agencies, as appropriate, to manage the local impact of our decisions. We must 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 a coherent plan to deliver an estate that supports the capabilities we need to keep our people safe, meet our responsibilities to our allies and friends and 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. I stress again that the military considerations are paramount among the factors that we will consider. We need to focus finite resources where they are most needed. We know that the RAF will be smaller and will inevitably need fewer flying stations. Although it will become leaner, we can maximise investment in new aircraft and also assure 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.

I think that I might be about to answer the point that the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) wishes to raise. My right hon. and learned Friend has called on the Government to base our decisions on military necessity, the reality of the public purse and the socio-economic impacts on the areas affected, and I assure him that that is precisely what we will do. I have chosen carefully the order in which I put those criteria: the military considerations come first. They must be in line with economic considerations, but we are in no way immune to the wider impact that those decisions will have and, of course, and will listen to representations from Members from both sides of the House on the impact they will have on communities. All three factors will be taken into consideration. I think that that was the point that the hon. Gentleman wished to raise.

I am grateful for the Minister’s clarification. Am I correct in thinking that there is perhaps a fourth factor that should be seen as part of the whole discussion, which is the consideration given to what other uses the surplus bases could be turned?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the other military uses to which bases can be put are part and parcel of the decision making, but I think that he is wrong to view that as a fourth factor. They are absolutely part and parcel of the military considerations that will inform us first and foremost, and of the economic considerations that will flow from that. Indeed, they will have considerable socio-economic impacts on the communities in each case. The SDSR is a process that will transform our armed forces to meet the challenges of the future. That includes the defence estate. We will now press on with that work.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.