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BUTEC Facility (North-West Scotland)

Volume 597: debated on Tuesday 23 June 2015

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

I congratulate you on your appointment, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate with you in the Chair. I welcome the opportunity to raise this issue. I have heard many hon. Members in the past couple of days asking, what is BUTEC? It is the British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre, which is operated by QinetiQ on behalf of the Ministry of Defence.

BUTEC operates facilities at Kyle of Lochalsh, the Island of Rona and Applecross, with testing taking place off Rona and in the Inner Sound between the Island of Raasay and the mainland at Applecross. The area off Rona will, from time to time, be closed to local fishing interests, with an area off Raasay being permanently closed—the so-called no take zone. When there is no activity off Rona, creels can be placed there. The fishermen are compensated when the area is closed and the creels have to be moved.

On 23 February, the then Under-Secretary of State for Defence, now the Minister for Defence Procurement, informed this House that there was to be a £22 million investment at QinetiQ. We do not know the details of that investment, but among other things the Rona facility will be closed and there will be a net loss of jobs. Perhaps the Minister could detail what the planned investment will actually result in as far as jobs are concerned. There has been considerable local coverage of the plans, including the publication of a map. I have the map with me and it shows at least a doubling of the exclusion zone for fishing, right up to the shore line at Applecross.

To a large extent, the interests of BUTEC and the local fishing community co-exist, or can be more accurately said to have co-existed up until that proposal was announced. There are legitimate concerns that the proposed expansion of BUTEC offers a real threat to the local fishing industry. My first question is: why could we not have the same circumstances that exist off Rona, where fishing is allowed when there is no activity? The same should apply to any extended area. I also want to ask why this is being proposed now. Is it, for example, to do with the existing Trident fleet, or is it, as some expect, to do with a future replacement of the Trident fleet, something that we on the Scottish National party Benches would resolutely oppose?

Since February, very little has been stated publicly. We were promised a public consultation, which was initially suggested for April and then conveniently moved until after the general election and put off until June. I now understand that it has been put back to late summer. That is simply not good enough, particularly in the light of what is happening at Applecross. People in my constituency deserve to know what is going on and the nature of the threat to employment in Ross, Skye and Lochaber.

On 29 May, one of our local papers, the West Highland Free Press, stated that a Ministry of Defence spokesman had said that no work had started on the expansion. However, the “Applecrosslife” blog of 6 June tells a different story:

“The ‘investment’ on the shore side of the Range expansion has already begun which leads me to think that the upcoming consultation may be little more than a paper exercise. No one is going to tell me that everything is not in place and that this is not going to stop if a few fishermen complain their livelihoods are going to be adversely affected.”

There is also photographic evidence on the blog of ongoing work. My questions are as follows: when will the consultation exercise start? Why has the consultation process not started? Who is responsible for commencing the construction activity? When the consultation starts, why should we believe that it will be meaningful if the construction work is already under way? Why is there a proposal to take the exclusion zone right up to the shoreline? Why are the expansion plans necessary? Let me also ask: who will be responsible for the consultation exercise? Who will conduct it and who will be consulted?

Why is this important? I welcome the jobs associated with the range. However, we understand from what has appeared in the press that, with the ending of the Rona capabilities, there will be a net reduction in jobs. I want to speak up for the work force at QinetiQ, and in doing so, I ask that the company restore union recognition for the work force and allow them to be properly represented on this and on other matters.

I turn to the implications for the fishing industry. Particularly active in this area is the Mallaig & North West Fishermen’s Association. The association was formed to promote the idea of responsible fishing within the Inner Sound between Raasay and the Scottish mainland, with the intention of maintaining the viability not only of the available stocks of fish and shellfish, but of the diverse fishing communities situated on the fringes of the area. The association fully understands the role played by the fishing industry in keeping these communities alive.

The area has a reputation for producing high-quality prawns, which are eagerly sought by shellfish buyers for the export markets in mainland Europe. The membership of the association currently numbers some 70 vessels and 120 owners and crewmen. The reports of an expansion of the BUTEC range caused considerable disquiet among the membership, and a number of meetings have been held to discuss the issue. The current situation whereby fishing activity has been banned in a swathe of the Inner Sound was accepted by the association—but with some reservations.

The area currently used by QinetiQ consists mainly of deep water—100 fathoms, or 600 feet, where the BUTEC activities are carried out. Over the years, the fishermen have learned to operate outwith this area, to rotate their activities to suit the available stocks in each location and to maintain and preserve their integrity while allowing themselves to make a living and retain the viability of the communities they live in.

The fishing industry supports not only the livelihood of the 120 people directly employed within it, but a large—and some would say equal—number of jobs associated with it. That is some 240 families in the area whose main wage earner is dependent on this industry. As I have stated, 70 boats will be affected by the proposals with a larger knock-on effect across many communities. What sustainability studies have been carried out on the issue?

The current system of rotating fishing activities to suit the available stocks would be severely hampered should any further areas be declared “no fishing zones”. It is simple mathematics: 70 vessels concentrated into a much smaller area would catch the available stocks faster. That would lead to overfishing of the area and removal of too many shellfish to allow natural regeneration of the stock. The result would be a collapse of those stocks and the end of the local industry.

There is the issue of the threat to employment in the fishing industry and at BUTEC. The current proposals will see 13 jobs at the Rona listening station at the north end of Raasay being surplus to requirements. Those jobs do not appear to be being replaced by civilian staff at the new facility being mooted under the extension scheme. If the extension is allowed, it is a certainty that those 13 jobs will be lost.

The loss of fishing grounds will no doubt force a number of fishermen to leave the industry at the very least. That will have a knock-on effect in the local communities and the whole downward spiral of depopulation will be exacerbated, leading to further local decline. These communities operate within a finely-tuned mechanism of co-dependence. Loss of a part of one commercial area impacts upon all the others; the local economies are intertwined, with the long-term viability of the area depending on that relationship. If one aspect of the local economy declines, the revenue declines elsewhere. The communities are indeed living on the edge. The loss of fishing industry jobs will mean families without any secure full-time employment being forced to leave. The ripples of that departure will resonate throughout the entire community, affecting other local businesses, schools and myriad other institutions.

It is not known how many civilians are directly dependent on the BUTEC facility. That information is apparently “classified”, but it can be safely assumed that the number does not come close to the numbers directly or indirectly connected with the local fishing industry. As a result of the range extension, the local area could lose a considerable number of full-time, year-round jobs, which would devastate the area and lead to irreversible decline.

This proposal comes at the same time as further revelations concerning the safety aspects of the UK nuclear fleet and the Trident programme. When new safety allegations are added to the well-documented grounding of a nuclear-powered submarine in the area in recent years, the general disquiet that is felt about the possibility of another accident must be considered. It would take only one mistake to devastate the entire area.

Questions are rightly being asked about why the new area is being considered for the BUTEC programme. The waters there are relatively shallow in comparison with those in the current restricted zone. It is one thing for nuclear-powered submarines to operate in depths of 100 fathoms, but it is an entirely different matter for those same vessels to operate in much shallower waters.

Those who are familiar with the history of the area will know that there used to be crofting communities all the way along the Applecross peninsula. They were hampered by very poor communications with the outside world, and for decades they fought to have their only means of access, a simple track, upgraded to a road. One by one, those crofting townships were emptied of their people as they sought a better life elsewhere, frustrated by the lack of support from the Government. By the 1960s, they were gone. What happened then? The Ministry of Defence went into the peninsula and a road was built, but it was built too late to save the communities that had existed in Applecross for hundreds of years.

In one way or another, people were cleared from Applecross—cleared from the land. I do not wish to see our people today cleared from the fishing grounds: history must not be repeated. I urge the Minister to engage in early consultation and, crucially, to recognise that we must respect the interests of the local fishing community, as well as the interests of the MOD and BUTEC.

Let me begin by joining all the other Members who have congratulated you on your appointment, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) for allowing me to take some of his allotted time. In doing so, he recognised that this issue is important not just for his constituency but for Scotland more widely. It goes to the heart of the question of the relationship between the Ministry of Defence and local communities, particularly Scotland’s rural communities.

As my hon. Friend said, there is no doubt that work on the extension of the BUTEC range has already started, although, as recently as last month, the West Highland Free Press said that the official MOD position was that no such work had begun. The evidence is plain: anyone passing Sands Beach and looking down will see that major and extensive trench digging is already taking place—and why, if no major construction is taking place, are the Applecross guest houses full of construction workers? Some are booked up four months in advance. That is the crux of the matter: it is about engagement and respect between the Ministry of Defence and local communities.

Will the Minister please tell us what level of consultation has been entered into by the MOD with the local population about the range extension, and about the serious effects that it will have on fishermen and associated businesses? Like my hon. Friend, I understand that a public consultation was due to start in April, but it did not. Then it was due to start in June, but that has not happened either. Now there is a vague promise that it will take place some time before the end of the summer. What is the truth? When will that public consultation take place? Indeed, will it ever take place? It now appears that the first part of the extension will be completed before there has been any consultation with the local community. Will the Minister confirm this evening that there will be a consultation process, and will he tell the House when it will take place?

In accepting that the construction work is well under way despite a lack of any public consultation, will the Minister tell us what procedures the MOD believes it has to follow in order to proceed with the major part of the construction work? I ask that question because I am unaware of any planning application having been made, or of an environmental impact assessment having been carried out. As I understand it, when the Ministry sought to extend the buildings at Faslane, it used the conventional planning process. Is it the Ministry’s intention to use that process to extend the work at BUTEC?

Will the Minister tell us whether an application has been made under the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997? Does the work even require such planning permission? If not, what mechanisms are being put in place to facilitate scrutiny and consideration by the public, by the local authority and by the Scottish Government? My fear is that the development will be buried deep within the confines of a general permitted development of an unspecified nature, or that the Secretary of State will use the powers granted to him under the antiquated and anachronistic Military Lands Act 1892 and its associated byelaws to avoid any public scrutiny or consultation. Unfortunately, the MOD stands accused once again of a lack of public engagement, of secrecy and of obfuscation. I urge the Minister not to hide behind the Military Lands Act, and to ensure instead that public consultation and transparency are the hallmark of his actions.

We are forced to conclude that the Ministry of Defence is once again spending hundreds of millions of pounds of the public’s money yet is unwilling to be held up to public scrutiny. We strongly suspect that the reason this whole project is shrouded in such secrecy is that the MOD is spending this money by stealth to extend the BUTEC range in preparation for the arrival of Trident. How can the Minister explain that, when this place has yet to debate, let alone agree, Trident’s renewal?

When will the Ministry consult the people whose lives are going to be affected by the extension of the range? What safeguards are being put in place to prevent any disturbance to the local environment, to the public and to marine life as a result of the extension? And when will the MOD come clean with the people of Applecross and wider Scotland about what is actually happening at BUTEC and admit that this is further below-the-line spending based on Trident’s renewal before this House has debated or agreed to such an undertaking?

Madam Deputy Speaker, I should like to add my congratulations to you on your election. This is the first time I have had the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship. When we first arrived in Parliament in 2005, we served together on the Work and Pensions Select Committee, and I have fond memories of the agreement that we reached on many matters despite coming from opposite sides of the Chamber. This is a great pleasure.

I should also like to congratulate the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) not only on securing this important debate for his constituents but on his presence in the Chamber tonight having won his seat in Parliament. I have listened carefully to what he and the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) have said, and I shall seek to address the points that they have raised. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute for alerting me to the fact that he was going to contribute to the debate.

Before I address those points, it might be helpful if I explain our plans for the British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre—widely known as BUTEC—and other associated facilities. BUTEC is currently located on two sites in the Inner Raasay Sound: a control centre on the Applecross peninsula and the site support base at Kyle of Lochalsh. Together with a third site, the underwater acoustic signature range operated from the Island of Rona, these are collectively known as the Raasay ranges. All three facilities are operated on behalf of the MOD by QinetiQ under the terms of a long-term partnering agreement. The LTPA is a 25-year contract, effective from 2003, worth about £5.6 billion over the life of the contract for the delivery of test, evaluation and specialised training support services. That partnering arrangement delivers an efficient and affordable service that provides access to QinetiQ’s test and evaluation capabilities and expertise, while sustaining investment in new technology and facilities.

I would like to make it absolutely clear that there remains an enduring defence requirement for the capabilities provided by the Raasay ranges. Important work that could not easily be undertaken elsewhere is carried out there to support UK defence, including the measurement of acoustic, electromagnetic and radar signatures of naval platforms, and the testing of some maritime conventional weapons systems. As with all Departments, the MOD must continually strive to deliver capability efficiently. I am proud to have been part of the team helping to deliver more than £5 billion of cost savings since 2010. All areas of defence are regularly examined to ensure that we can deliver our required capabilities at best value to the taxpayer.

As part of our work on potential cost reductions, QinetiQ developed a proposal, at the request of the Department, to optimise and sustain the Raasay ranges. This proposal would see the closure of the Rona facility and the relocation of in-water acoustic measuring equipment to the BUTEC water space, as well as technical enhancements at the Applecross and Kyle of Lochalsh sites. This will result in a significant modernisation of the range architecture. The enhancements would mean long-term investment of approximately £22 million in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, although much of the investment will be made under water. This is expected to deliver some £1 million of annual operating cost savings until 2028, when the current agreement with QinetiQ expires.

As part of this reorganisation, up to 13 posts currently based at the remote Rona facility will be lost. Those posts are manned by personnel who operate in a similar way to workers on offshore oil rigs. In other words, they are not locally housed individuals—they often come from the central belt in Scotland—and therefore have no immediate impact on the local economy because they do not have the opportunity to spend their wages locally. That is because there are no facilities there, other than their own facility and a local household living on the Rona Island. It is hoped that as many of these reductions as possible will be achieved through voluntary means.

It is important to set this in context. Aside from those job reductions, the proposed enhancements will be very good news for the remaining employees of QinetiQ, about 80 of whom work at Applecross and the Kyle of Lochalsh. I understand that QinetiQ is the second largest employer, after the local authority, in that area, so it is a significant employer in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

May I get clarification on something? The Minister said that this would lead to £1 million of savings for the MOD, but the knock-on effect to the local economy will be that the fishing boats will be cleared out of the new extended range. There will therefore be a devastating effect on the local economy while the MOD is saving £1 million per annum.

I shall come on to deal with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the impact on the fishing industry, because that is the thrust of the argument being made by Scottish National party Members. In short, that vision is not shared by the MOD, and I will come on to explain why. We believe that this investment will sustain the activity in Applecross and the Kyle of Lochalsh, and in the Inner Sound, which will have an enduring future in terms of maintaining economic prosperity in the area.

Relocating the in-water acoustic measurement equipment away from Rona will mean extending the current Ministry of Defence byelaws for the BUTEC protected water space by some 28 sq km. The current byelaw covers 82 sq km, which is currently divided into two areas. The first is an outer area of approximately 56 sq km, which prohibits the fishing by any method involving the use of a net or dredge. There is also an inner area of around 26 sq km within which all fishing, whether by line, net, trawl or creel, as well as the anchoring of vessels, dredging and dumping of rubbish are prohibited.

Under the proposed changes for the BUTEC water space, there would be a single water space provided for all range activities covering an area of approximately 110 sq km. This relatively modest increase in water area would be offset by removing the fishing restrictions currently in place in the area of water around the Island of Rona.

Let me assure the hon. Gentlemen that the Ministry of Defence takes very seriously its obligations to ensure the continued and sustainable use of waters that are used for defence purposes by other users. We already work closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and with Marine Scotland to establish a sound informal consultation process in respect of the national marine plan development.

As part of the work to implement QinetiQ’s proposal for BUTEC, it will be necessary to revise the current byelaws. Part of that revision process involves the need for public consultation. It is intended that this formal public consultation will commence later this summer as part of a separate strand of work to review all current byelaws at some 200 defence sites. The consultation is in relation to byelaws, the timing of which is not determined solely by this site. It is affected by proposals across a range of defence sites, not exclusively in Scotland—most of them are in fact outside Scotland.

I am interested to hear what the Minister is saying. The reason there is so much concern is that some of the information that came from QinetiQ, which ended up in the public domain, referred to a much larger exclusion zone than he is expressing in his statement today. The map, which I am sure the Minister has seen, indicates a potential doubling of the area. I wish to hear some clarification on what was talked about. The information that was in the public domain is therefore not correct. My constituents and I would welcome an early consultation on that and to hear what it means for the fishing community.

My understanding is that QinetiQ enjoys a close and co-operative relationship with local fishermen and their representatives. Although it may not have engaged in a direct consultation in relation to the impact on fishing, it is absolutely our intention to do so, and I will come on to that in a moment. I cannot comment on what material may have appeared in the public domain by sources outside the Ministry of Defence, but I hope that I have given some reassurance already that the extension of the area that we are talking about is relatively modest, and not at the kind of dramatic level that the hon. Gentleman seems to think is likely to be the case.

The Ministry of Defence has a presumption in favour of public access wherever this is compatible with operational and military training uses, public safety, security, conservation and the interests of tenants. It is, therefore, important that the views of local communities are taken into account when we propose any changes to occupation or use of shared space.

To assist with the BUTEC public consultation, we will place notices in the local press that the draft byelaws will be made available on the Ministry of Defence website and copies will also be available in local libraries and other municipal buildings, providing the opportunity for anyone wishing to express their views to be able to do so.

I point out gently to the hon. Gentlemen that Members of the Scottish Parliament were notified by me in writing in February that this exercise would be undertaken in the summer. There was no suggestion in my correspondence with the local authority, the then existing Members of Parliament, or Members of the Scottish Parliament that there would be a consultation beginning any time before the summer. I am not aware that there was any suggestion that there would be a consultation starting in April coming out of the MOD, so I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman has got that suggestion from.

I would further like to make it clear to the Opposition Members present that all the views expressed by those taking part will be considered fully as part of the decision-making process, which will also require appropriate ministerial approval, ultimately, by me, and that will include consultation with fishermen. The suggestion that this has all been agreed in advance is not the case. Proposals have been made by QinetiQ. They will be consulted upon. We will consider the responses to that consultation and then we will make a decision.

I will come on to that in a moment.

I recognise that the people who are most likely to be affected by the BUTEC plans will be those whose livelihoods depend on fishing the waters of the Inner Sound, which is the concern that has been particularly expressed in this debate. Naturally, they have legitimate concerns about how our plans will be implemented and how this might affect them in the long term, so we completely recognise that it would be wrong simply to ignore their views. For that reason, and in parallel to the byelaw consultation, I want to ensure that full and proper discussions are held with representatives of the local fishing communities, which we will start shortly, in advance of the byelaw consultation. The aim of these talks will be to investigate what options might be available that would allow some fishing to take place at certain times within the revised water space—much as happens at present in part of the area other than that which is completely prohibited, which the fishing communities are well accustomed to. Of course, this work will have to be balanced with the Ministry of Defence’s need to protect its investments and to ensure the continued operation of this vital defence capability.

As I mentioned, I wrote to the predecessor of the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, the well respected and late lamented Charles Kennedy, and met him shortly before the general election, to explain what was envisaged, the process of consultation, and that no final decisions had been taken, contrary to local press reports. I also wrote to Members of the Scottish Parliament and local authority leaders, and I look forward to developing a similarly constructive relationship with the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber.

There is work to be completed before any final decisions are made, which on current plans is expected around the end of the year. Full implementation of the changes is due to be completed during 2017.

In relation to the construction that has started already, most of this investment will be in looking at sensors under the water. There is a modest amount of investment in the existing facilities to upgrade some of the physical capacity onshore. Where that does not require planning consent, that work can continue in any event and is already starting. That is part of the £22 million investment. Some elements require consultation; respect for local planning regulations, if any, is necessary, and consultation with statutory consultees such as Marine Scotland. Of course that work cannot be done until that process has been completed, but initial preparatory work can be undertaken. It is nothing to alarm hon. Members, as though that was prejudging that consultation. Much of this work needs to be done routinely as part of a 25-year contract. You would not expect there to be no improvements during the course of a contract as long as that.

I shall try to allay some of the fears of the hon. Gentleman, who represented an apocalyptic vision of the impact of these proposals on fishermen. I have seen nothing to suggest that that vision is remotely applicable to what we are proposing here. We are actively keen to engage with fishermen who, in particular, undertake creel fishing for prawn and other crustaceans in the sound. There is an established relationship with QinetiQ and a channel for communication to allow that to happen when there is no testing going on. There is no reason to suggest that that would change. There might be specific areas of the sound where we will be looking to extend the prohibition, but they are relatively modest, and certainly nothing like the scale that the hon. Gentleman suggested, which might lead to the devastation of the industry to which he referred.

I look forward to the consultation exercise, and I will be satisfied if what the hon. Gentleman has laid out turns out to be the case. Hopefully he understands why there are legitimate concerns. The information that came into the public domain from QinetiQ paints a very different picture from the one that he has put forward today; it suggests a much larger expansion in the area. Therefore, one can understand why people in my community are concerned when they see construction activity starting. If that is in any way related to the expansion plans, would it not be more respectful to the local community if that did not happen until after the consultation exercise?

All I will say to the hon. Gentleman is that I think it behoves him to act responsibly as a Member of Parliament and not to foment his constituents into getting overexcited about something until he is well informed about the situation. We all have to deal with contentious issues in our constituencies, and having been a Member of Parliament for 10 years, I think that it is always better to adopt an informed position before reaching for the panic button. Therefore, I hope that this debate has helped reassure the hon. Gentleman on how we propose to conduct ourselves and the extent of the consultation we are looking to undertake, because we will take into account the legitimate views of his constituents who might be inadvertently affected.

I would like to answer some of the hon. Gentleman’s questions. He asked who will be responsible for the consultation. The byelaw consultation will be undertaken by the Defence Infrastructure Organisation’s byelaw review team. The consultation with the fishermen will be undertaken primarily by QinetiQ, as it has the direct relationship with them. He asked whether the depth of the water would have an impact on what we are proposing, and the answer is no; the extension of the range would be in water of a similar depth, rather than shallower water. He asked whether we have any expectations of an adverse impact on the fishing community, which I think I have already addressed. The answer is that we do not think so, but we are keen to explore any concerns there might be.

On the question asked by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), I do not think that there is a question of undue secrecy by the MOD. As I have said, we have been very clear with his colleagues in the Scottish Parliament about what we are seeking to undertake, and we will do a consultation. However, we will maintain secrecy over the precise nature of some of the equipment and the capability it delivers, because that has a clear defence purpose. I do not think that he would expect us to be as transparent about that.

The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute also raised in a traditional way his concerns about whether this might be some underhand way of encouraging Trident renewal. I do not think that is a relevant concern here. This is about providing capability that is used for a wide variety of submarine testing, including the strategic deterrent, but it is by no means exclusively in relation to it.

Can I be absolutely clear that the extension of the range has absolutely nothing to do with the proposed renewal of Trident? I find it difficult to comprehend that such an investment would be made in an underwater submarine test facility when the Government are clearly on record as supporting Trident renewal. Is this not just under-the-line spending, by which we have seen billions spent preparing for Trident renewal before this House has had a chance to debate it?

As I tried to make clear at the outset, this is about improving the efficiency of the facilities that exist at the moment in the Inner Sound. We are, in essence, taking two separate locations under the water and combining them into one. The functionality of what happens under the water is being improved because of technological advances. This has to do with seeking to upgrade the existing facilities to make them fit for purpose for the future; it has no specific relationship to the strategic deterrent.

I think I have sought to address all the points that hon. Members have raised. I hope that the House will understand why the changes I have outlined for the BUTEC water space are required. Put simply, they are key to sustaining the continuing operation of this vital facility, which happens to be one of the largest employers in that part of the constituency of the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber. I hope that he will come to recognise that this is something that he should support.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.