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UK Military Basing Review

Volume 524: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2011

A happy St David’s day to you, Mr Benton. It may be worth noting at the start of the debate that Sky Television is reporting the details of military job losses. No written statement is in the Library, so Members of Parliament are only able to learn of those circumstances by watching the media. No doubt the Ministry of Defence and its officials will try to rectify that as a priority.

Like other Departments, the MOD is going through significant spending cuts and, with an outline of the main structural changes to the armed forces and their equipment in the strategic defence and security review, consideration is now being given to what that means for military basing. One major change in future years will see the return of UK service personnel from Germany. With a head count reduction in the Royal Air Force, as well as in its equipment, there will be fewer RAF operating stations. Changes are also in the pipeline for the Royal Navy, which will have a considerable impact on the three services and on the communities where they have been based, often for many decades.

With the most defence-dependent constituency in the UK, I have more reason than most MPs to watch developments closely, and the experience has not been a happy one. The MOD has already announced the closure of RAF Kinloss, with devastating local consequences in Moray, and the sword of Damocles is hanging over neighbouring RAF Lossiemouth. On the day of the SDSR in October, the Defence Secretary told me personally that the decision on RAF Lossiemouth would be taken before Christmas—Christmas 2010. Then, in November, he told me—again, personally—that the military recommendations would be made by the end of February, with a political decision within weeks. As we now know, that has not happened, and a decision and announcement have been delayed until the summer. Frankly, that is no way to run a military basing review, and no way to treat service families and the communities in which they live. The consequences of that dithering and delay has been economic stagnation and uncertainty. It is costing jobs and livelihoods, as well as causing unnecessary economic damage and undermining business confidence.

When the announcement to close RAF Kinloss was made in October, it came as a bolt out of the blue. The MOD decided at a stroke to cancel the new generation of Nimrod maritime reconnaissance aircraft, and with it, its home base at RAF Kinloss. Nearly £4 billion of taxpayer investment was binned and the planes have been cut up for landfill. Now, both the Republic of Ireland and Norway have a greater dedicated fixed-wing maritime patrol capability than the UK, and the UK is without a dedicated ISTAR combat platform to perform vital intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance tasks. Imagine if there were suddenly geostrategic developments, let us say, in northern Africa. Imagine if it was vital to operate long-range flights, to sit off the coast for 8 hours and to monitor all nature of electromagnetic spectrum, while having the ability to image the coast. I guess we will never know how many lives that could have saved, or which operations we could have supported in, for example, Libya, because the UK decided to scrap Nimrod while spending up to £100 billion keeping Trident—a weapon system that can never be used.

Meanwhile, back in the most defence-dependent part of the country, local authorities and agencies have had to deal with the consequences of closing RAF Kinloss without any material support whatever from the UK Government. The impact on service families, the local economy and local public services has been devastating. Of course, the UK Government knew that this was going to happen. They knew that this was going to happen because information was provided to them in a detailed report by Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Despite that, support has still not been provided.

Moray is unique in the UK as it is the only part of the country that is facing the prospect of a double RAF base closure. In the first instance, that makes no defence or security sense whatever. RAF Lossiemouth was recently judged by the RAF to be the best base for the next generation of fast jets. Given the wish for better military co-operation by both the UK and Norway, it is worth reminding ourselves that RAF Lossiemouth is the closest base to Norway. Norway wants to maintain and operate the next generation of fast jets in co-operation with the UK, and RAF Lossiemouth is the designated UK base for the same aircraft. RAF Lossiemouth is adjacent to the best training areas, which is a significant consideration, given the cost of flying from bases further away. Given the double runway and facilities, it is also easily able to host different types of aircraft.

The defence case to retain the facility is unsurpassed, which is why it is supported by all political parties and political leaders in Scotland, as well by as the Scottish Government. Few will have missed the public reaction in support of the base. In a unique show of support in the UK, thousands of people marched through Lossiemouth last November. That support continues. Only a few days ago, thousands of people took to the streets of Elgin to welcome home personnel from operations, and I would like to thank all local campaigners, the Moray Task Force and The Northern Scot for their hard work and support.

Reports from within the MOD suggest that the Royal Air Force has already recommended that RAF Lossiemouth should remain. Ministers must listen to that recommendation. Ministers have to understand that closing RAF Lossiemouth is like losing 40,000 jobs in Glasgow, or 400,000 jobs in Greater London. The MOD needs to understand that a double RAF base closure in Moray would be the biggest single economic shock in the north of Scotland since the Highland clearances. RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth together support 5,710 full-time equivalent jobs in the local economy, which equates to 16% of all full-time employment in Moray. The two bases also generate £158 million a year for the local economy, while RAF households account for 7% of the total population of the region and 8% of its working age population. At least 15% of local NHS staff have partners connected to Moray RAF activity, while in areas such as midwifery, district nursing and cardiology, that figure increases to 25%. Some 30% of hotel business in Moray is RAF-related. Inactivity at RAF Kinloss amounts to the loss of £500,000 a week. Imagine the compounded impact of a double base closure.

Other parts of Scotland also have cause for concern, with a threat to RAF Leuchars in Fife, to 2nd Division Headquarters at Craigiehall and to Fort George near Inverness. Should Scotland see a reduction from three air force bases to only one, that would constitute a 70% cut in RAF personnel numbers and would leave 40 fewer aircraft. That stands in contrast to the Royal Norwegian air force, which operates more than 110 aircraft from seven air bases; the Royal Danish air force, which operates more than 111 aircraft from three air bases; and the Royal Swedish air force, which operates more than 187 aircraft from seven air bases.

It is widely expected that the MOD will close the operational Army headquarters outside Edinburgh and there are fears of a further reduction in historic battalions. In total, that would leave fewer service personnel in Scotland than there are in the armed forces of the Irish Republic. Unlike many other parts of the UK, Scotland has recently seen a significant defence contraction, with a multi-billion pound defence underspend, base closures and an amalgamation of historic military units.

At the time of the strategic defence review in 1997, there were 15,000 service personnel in Scotland. Under the previous Government, that was cut to 12,000 while, at the same time, manning rose in other parts of the UK. When adding civilian defence job losses to the equation, Scotland lost 10,500 jobs between the 1997 SDR and the 2010 SDSR. MOD statistics show that the defence underspend in Scotland totalled at least £5.6 billion in the same period. That underspend constitutes a 36% budget shortfall. At the same time, there has been an unprecedented concentration of defence spending, manpower and basing in the south of Britain. There are no prizes for guessing where the main training establishments, super-garrisons, command headquarters and largest operational bases are located. They are almost all in the southern half of England. Amazingly, no defence or security logic has ever been outlined by this or any previous Government as to why that should be the case.

This is not what happens in allied countries. To find out what the norm is elsewhere, I travelled to the United States in December to learn how it deals with the same challenges. There, the Department of Defence has clear responsibilities to maintain a defence footprint across the US, and a commitment to defence-dependent communities. The US has an independent Base Realignment and Closure Commission which makes final recommendations on basing that then go for congressional approval. There is also an Office of Economic Adjustment which supports local communities with technical and financial support.

Just in case the Minister wants to say in his reply that there are issues of national security, I would like to draw his attention to the full documentation published by the BRAC Commission and the OEA. In the US, the process seems to be managed well. In the UK, in contrast, military basing reviews are entirely opaque. I should point out that the main policy objective of the Department of Defence when dealing with base closures is to act expeditiously—that has not happened in the UK basing review. The statutory criteria of the commission’s work require it to conduct an assessment of the economic impact on existing communities in the vicinity of military installations, and an environmental impact assessment. The commissioners also have to assess whether the results of the closure or realignment process might leave insufficient strategic presence in some parts of the US.

Having gone through a non-partisan, transparent, fully costed analysis, the commission’s recommendations are approved or rejected in their entirety on Capitol Hill. There is full democratic oversight and approval. Where bases are to close, the OEA provides comprehensive support for communities, as its website highlights:

“In today’s economic climate, OEA and federal government support is essential to communities nationwide as they cope with Defense program changes.”

What a contrast with the UK, where the Ministry of Defence seems to take no responsibility whatsoever, where the basing review is an internal MOD exercise which is totally opaque, and where base reviews appear to be ad hoc, financially driven and, frankly, unstrategic.

The Minister now has 15 minutes to enlighten Parliament, the defence world, military families and defence-dependent communities about the UK military basing review. I hope that he will confirm that the MOD will publish all supporting documentation and the full balance of investment appraisals from the UK basing review. If the USA can publish full documentation without compromising security, so can the UK.

I want to leave the Minister and his colleagues with this quote from a recent editorial in Scotland’s biggest selling national daily newspaper:

“In election after election, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories have warned that the SNP would leave Scotland defenceless. But shutting RAF Lossiemouth will destroy that argument for good, leaving us with far weaker defences than other small European nations. Scotland has no tanks, no heavy artillery, no armoured vehicles, no self-propelled artillery, no armoured personnel carriers, only five helicopters and 12 Snatch Landrovers. If RAF Lossiemouth goes, we would have just one RAF base left.”

Given those circumstances, it is unsurprising that an ever-growing number of people in Scotland are now asking why Scotland does not make its own defence decisions like other normal countries. It is clear to most people that if we were to spend the tax revenue we currently contribute to the MOD, there would be more bases, more equipment, more service personnel and more jobs in Scotland. We would also be able to support conventional defence properly rather than waste money on nuclear weapons. The MOD needs to prove that it is worthy of support from Scottish taxpayers, voters and service personnel. Frankly, at present, it is not fit for purpose.

I commend the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) on securing this important debate. He and I have been on trips together, we are both officers of the all-party Royal Air Force group—I have very much enjoyed his support in that group—and we have conferred many times in the past on these matters. I know that he takes a genuine interest in this subject, not least because, as he said, he has a defence-intense constituency. Of course, I am entirely in sympathy with him, because my constituency of Aldershot is also heavily defence-oriented. He will, of course, point out that it is in the south of England. We cannot move Aldershot—it is in the south of England.

There can be no doubt that this debate is important to those who take an interest in the future of Her Majesty’s armed forces, and to the constituencies of a number of Members in the House. I see that my hon. Friends the Members for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) and for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) are here. The hon. Member for Moray has therefore rightly set out several concerns which are, understandably, felt by many Members.

In today’s and previous debates, several RAF bases have been mentioned. I would like to put on record the Government’s gratitude for the exceptional work of all those who serve in the RAF. I was commissioned in the RAF volunteer reserve and would have joined the service—I nearly did—had I not had political aspirations. Our gratitude extends to the local communities which have, over the years, given such strong support to the bases from which the RAF operates—a point that the hon. Gentleman made forcefully.

However, given the context of this debate, I would like to focus for the moment on RAF Kinloss and its proud association with the Nimrod. The Nimrod force played a vital role in helping to keep this country secure during the cold war. More recently, it played a key role in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some RAF Nimrods continue to do so. Kinloss has been the home of Nimrod and those who flew and supported them for nearly 40 years. I am an aviator, and I am acutely aware of the bond between RAF personnel and the aircraft that they service and fly. I understand the shock that was felt when the decision was announced. I know that there is a real sense of loss in the tightly-knit service community, and that seeing pictures of the Nimrods being broken up will have been extremely painful to all of them, as it was to me.

I did not come into government to take such decisions, nor did the Defence Secretary or the Prime Minister. Nor did I come into government to make communities fear for their future as we take difficult decisions on the fate of their bases. The decision to scrap the Nimrod MRA4 programme was one of the hardest we had to take. So how did we come to this situation? That decision must be viewed in the context of the previous Government’s dire economic mismanagement of the public finances. Under the stewardship of the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), Labour doubled the national debt and left us with the biggest budget deficit in our peacetime history. Today, we are spending £120 million every single day just to pay the interest charge on Labour’s debt. That is Labour’s legacy.

I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene in this important debate. I understand the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Moray about bases in his constituency. My concern, given our deficit, is that costs should be taken into account in the basing review. Given that in January the Minister for the Armed Forces said that it would be prohibitive to move engineering facilities away from RAF Marham, could I ask what is being considered in respect of the joint strike fighter maintenance facilities? We need a long-term decision that will reflect the costs and the expertise that has built up in RAF Marham, which employs more people than Kinloss and Lossiemouth put together.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I had the benefit of visiting Kinloss and Marham, so I am acutely aware of the assets of both bases. All I can say to her is that final decisions have not yet been made. I will come back to that point later on. Ministers will make the decisions based on military advice as well as detailed investment appraisals. I am afraid that that is as far as I can go to reassure her today.

I shall continue on the economic legacy we inherited. In defence, the consequences of 13 years of the catastrophic mismanagement I mentioned a moment ago are more severe than in any other area. Labour allowed a black hole of £38 billion to build up in the forward defence programme, over half of which was made up of equipment and support, with no plans in place to fund it. Restoring the nation’s finances is not only critical for the health of our economy and for the future funding of public services, but essential for national security, because a weak economy creates a national security risk.

Every Department has had to make its own contribution to reduce the staggering budget deficit we inherited, and the Ministry of Defence is required to shoulder its share of the burden. However, due to the priority we place on security, the defence budget is making a more modest contribution to deficit reduction than many other Departments. Even so, we are not immune from tough decisions. Some of the toughest decisions were about the Royal Air Force’s structure, not least the future of Nimrod.

There is no doubt that the Nimrod MRA4 would have performed an important role. It would have contributed to a wide range of military tasks. We have sought to mitigate the gap in capability through the use of other military assets such as frigates, helicopters, and C-130 Hercules aircraft. We will also request, where appropriate, assistance from allies and partners. However, it is important to remember that the country has been without Nimrod since March 2010. That was when the previous Government withdrew the Nimrod MR2 from service, so this was not a decision of this Government alone.

Why was that necessary? As the hon. Member for Moray knows only too well, the original plan conceived in 1996 was for 21 aircraft to be delivered in 2003—eight years ago. By the time the new Government took office in 2010, the programme had already been reduced to nine aircraft, was almost £800 million over budget and had seen the unit cost of each aircraft rise by 200% from £133 million to £455 million. At the time of the review, a number of design faults had been identified on the first MRA4 aircraft, which would have taken additional time and money to resolve. The headquarters of the contractor, BAE Systems, is in my constituency yet, as the hon. Member for Moray knows perfectly well, that has not stopped me being a vocal critic of its performance on this programme.

As we all know, the decision to scrap Nimrod was not the only difficult decision facing the RAF: the fast-jet fleet of Harrier and Tornado air defence was also affected. The RAF now plans to make a transition to a fast-jet force comprising the Typhoon and the joint strike fighter by 2021. Those were decisions about military capability and priorities. An inevitable consequence was that the RAF no longer requires RAF Kinloss and two other bases. I need to emphasise that—no longer required by the RAF. That does not mean that they are no longer required by defence. I will take the opportunity now to say again that we have not yet taken a decision about the long-term future of RAF Kinloss or any other air base as a result of the strategic defence and security review.

As Members will be aware, another major decision of the SDSR was to return to the UK 20,000 service personnel from Germany, with the intention of returning half by 2015 and the remaining personnel by 2020. Like all other parts of the public sector, defence is looking hard at its land holdings to ensure that we are using them as efficiently as possible. We have the cancellation of Nimrod, a rationalised fast-jet fleet, the return of large numbers of personnel from Germany, and a requirement to realise better value for money and efficiencies through broader estate rationalisation.

I have tabled parliamentary questions on the issue of the returning personnel from Germany. I discovered from the Minister for the Armed Forces that there have been absolutely no discussions with Scottish Ministers or the Department of Education in England about the capacity of any of the RAF bases to take the 7,000 children coming back from Germany. Does the Minister not accept that it looks like this is a political decision, not a fact-based decision?

The hon. Gentleman makes a point that I am about to make, which is that all I have said adds up to an extremely complex piece of work. He is right. Where the children are to be educated and which base may be best suited to a land army operation are not decisions that can be made on the back of a fag packet. They clearly require considerable thought. I will come on to that again in a moment.

The Minister does not need reminding by me that RAF Lyneham and the neighbouring towns of Wootton Bassett and Lyneham provide all the schools, infrastructure and transport that could possibly be needed for returning troops from Germany, and it will be available to them later this year.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting that on the record. It looks as though I could organise a competitive tender here, but I am not sure whether his parliamentary allowance could be used to bid to see who would offer the best value to the Ministry of Defence. Having visited Lyneham, I understand the facilities it offers. I reiterate my tribute to the people of Wootton Bassett in his constituency. I have been privileged to see the repatriations with him, and see how the town has been a credit to the whole kingdom for its dignity and the tributes it has paid to the fallen from Afghanistan. As we work our way through these issues, I assure hon. Members that we are well aware of the human dimension—the effect on our own people as they wait to hear how these decisions will affect them and their families.

I will be very quick. In the last three minutes, could the Minister, for the first time on behalf of the UK Government, explain the strategic logic behind the over-concentration of UK armed forces in the south of England?

I would like to answer the hon. Gentleman in my own way, because I want to come on to that issue in a moment.

Decisions will take into account the implications for Tornado personnel operating in Afghanistan and their families. The Army rebasing I mentioned will take account of all deployments to Afghanistan. We know what this means for local communities. Officials from the Scottish Office, the MOD and the Treasury have met the Moray Task Force and representatives from Fife council, so the idea that the local community has not had input is untrue. However, it is imperative that the defence footprint in the UK is determined by national, not regional, requirements.

It is worth stressing that the defence budget is used to buy the best equipment for the armed forces at the best value for money for the taxpayer. Where the companies are located is not the responsibility of the MOD. Defence is not an exercise in quotas for the regions and nations of the UK. Using the logic of the hon. Member for Moray, we could say that Dorset, Kent or Cornwall have not had their fair share among the English counties. He mentioned southern England, but what about northern England? Once we go down that line, we are on a hiding to nothing. The MOD has an interest in the defence footprint principally in so far as it enables our military functions to be better performed and the UK better defended.

We are the Conservative and Unionist party, so we recognise that all regions have a part to play in the defence of the UK. The hon. Gentleman did a good job in playing down the defence footprint in Scotland, but he is wrong to do so. The MOD has—and will continue to have—a considerable footprint in Scotland. It has a presence in nearly 400 locations and employs nearly 20,000 people. Even if his worst-case scenario came about, Scotland would still have one of three fast-jet main operating bases; one of three Royal Navy bases, which is the largest single-site employer in Scotland; a significant army presence; and a shipbuilding industry with thousands of jobs sustained by contracts for aircraft carriers and destroyers.

We must not forget that Scotland’s extraordinary contribution to the defence of the UK manifests itself today in the presence of the ultimate representation of Britain’s military prowess—her independent strategic nuclear deterrent, which the hon. Gentleman wishes to get rid of. He cannot claim to be a champion of defence jobs in Scotland while advocating that the UK abandon its nuclear deterrent. He claims to be acting in the interests of Scotland, but he knows as well as I do that his party’s policy would leave Scotland bereft of jobs in the defence industry, and vulnerable to nuclear blackmail or, even worse, attack.