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Armed Forces: Angus

Volume 652: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2019

[Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of the armed forces in Angus.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairwomanship, Ms McDonagh. I just want to say that I am overcoming a flu virus, so my delivery may not be as clear as it might have otherwise been.

Over the last century and more, the history of Angus has been intertwined with the armed forces. In 1913, the first operational military aerodrome in Britain was established at Montrose. That station served as a vital base, first for the Royal Flying Corps and then for the RAF, through two world wars. More recently, in 1938, what was then known as HMS Condor was opened as a base for the Fleet Air Arm near Arbroath. More than 80 years on, Condor remains the home of the armed forces in Angus and has become an integral part of Angus life. Condor contributes to Angus’s economy, and those who are based there are welcomed into the local community.

The past eight decades have seen Condor and the personnel based there contribute to the defence of Angus and the entire United Kingdom. Condor endured bombing during the second world war, and between 1954 and 1971 served as home to the Royal Navy Aircraft Engineering Training School. Since 1971, as RM Condor, it has been home to the Royal Marines of 45 Commando. In that time, 45 Commando has, among other operations, served multiple tours in Northern Ireland during the troubles, yomped across the Falklands to fight for the liberation of Port Stanley and protected Kurds from Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war. More recently, it has served with great distinction in Afghanistan, working under tremendous pressure to bring greater peace and stability to the region.

It was during those more recent conflicts that, in 2003, 45 Commando received the freedom of Arbroath and Angus—a small token of gratitude from the people of Angus, who are keenly aware of the sacrifice that 45 Commando and the armed forces more generally have made to keep this country safe. The true extent of that regard was further demonstrated in 2011 when the unit and the local community raised more than £250,000 for the establishment of a woodlands garden in memory of the 13 service personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country as part of Operation Herrick.

In early 2017, the people of Arbroath turned out in their droves to celebrate 45 years since 45 Commando moved to Condor, just as they had turned out to celebrate the return from conflict many times before. At that celebration, the then Commanding Officer of 45 Commando, Lieutenant Colonel Tony Turner, said that 45 Commando had been

“privileged over the years to have had such great support from the local community of Arbroath and Angus”

and that that shared history is what makes 45 Commando’s organisation and its connection to Arbroath “so unique”. That view is shared by the base’s current commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Forbes.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the great respect given to the armed forces in Angus is replicated across the country? In Moray, with RAF Lossiemouth and 39 Engineers at Kinloss, we have the same community spirit that supports the armed forces. As my hon. Friend said, the armed forces do not just protect our country. They also have great involvement in the local communities where they are stationed.

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It is not just the way in which the armed forces serve our nation—they also serve our communities and are an integral part of those communities. I will go on to explain how they are fully integrated into Arbroath and the wider Angus area.

Fundamentally, it is clear to me that Condor, and 45 Commando’s presence there, works. It works for Angus, it works for 45 Commando and it works for our military capabilities as a nation.

I am glad to have worked recently with this Conservative UK Government to ensure that armed forces personnel based at Condor and across Scotland were able to receive compensation protecting them from the Scottish Government’s income tax rises. I hope that, in the upcoming reprioritisation exercise of the better defence estate programme, I can once again work successfully with Ministers to support our brave servicemen and women. There should be no doubt that I welcome the programme, and that I firmly believe that the armed forces, and the use of the defence estate, should be as efficient and effective as possible. Everybody would agree with that.

Recent years have demonstrated how turbulent the world can be, how threats can materialise and subside quickly, and how our military should therefore be as well placed as possible to deal with all eventualities. I believe in a strong, cost-effective military, but I also believe, as a Conservative, that a long-standing fruitful relationship should be treasured and preserved, and so I look at the last half century, where 45 Commando has, from its base at Condor and its home in Angus, served so effectively and admirably in theatres around the world, protecting this country while helping to grow the local economy of a thankful and welcoming county.

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. She will have similar concerns to me, given that we come from the same part of the world. Does she agree that military personnel are best served when we take into account the needs of the whole family, such as schooling in a local community? It is crucial that family-friendly facilities are considered in any future investment, which is a point that has been acknowledged by our local paper, The Courier.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Condor includes and welcomes not only the family of personnel into the base, but also the wider community. He is absolutely right that it is a vital asset that each base should have.

It is clear to me that Condor should remain home to 45 Commando as part of this country’s defence infrastructure, and I hope that that is also the view of the Ministry of Defence—I and thousands of people across Angus would more than welcome an additional assurance from the Minister today that that is the case, which would reassure us of the continued presence of a pillar of our community and our economy. As a minimum, the forthcoming review should confirm that RM Condor will at least be maintained in its current form. That would not only allow the existing and successful relationship between 45 Commando, Angus, and the Ministry of Defence to continue, but would also secure the future of the Arbroath Division of the Royal Marines Volunteer Cadet Corps.

The Royal Marines cadets are a great opportunity for young people in Angus to develop skills and attitudes that will stand them in good stead for a lifetime. Meeting twice a week, they make use of Condor’s facilities. I understand they held their first, if rather cold, camp out at the beginning of last December. The foundation of the Arbroath Division of the RMVCC in December 2017 has further supported a long-standing relationship between RM Condor and multiple cadet groups. The impeccable reputation of the base means that demand for places in these groups is rightly high. In 2018, intakes took place in both August and October, and recruitment for a third intake is currently under way.

In addition, 45 Commando’s assault engineers and students from Dundee and Angus College recently collaborated to transform one of the hangers into a vital training asset. I know the Secretary of State was incredibly impressed at that innovation during his visit to the base last year. Moreover, there are the plethora of football, skiing, rugby, and competitive boxing clubs that make use of Condor’s facilities. Those benefits, both social and cultural, are further evidence of why the base and personnel should stay. However, the reprioritisation should commit to maintaining 45 Commando’s presence in Condor.

I am sure my hon. Friend would agree that today’s military personnel are a fighting force to be reckoned with, but they are more than that, in terms of military aid to the civil community for things such as firefighting, dealing with adverse weather conditions, flooding and so on. We should commend them for the good work they do throughout the United Kingdom, including in Scotland.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that they go above and beyond the role they are asked to do.

The reprioritisation exercise should commit to ensuring that Condor can continue to provide all the facilities that 45 Commando needs to continue to operate as effectively as it does today. We need clarity on the future of the base. I recognise the importance of an efficient defence estate, and nobody is calling for the Ministry of Defence to hold on to land that it does not need and cannot put to better use. Although the airstrip at Condor has been out of use for some time, the wider airfield and hangars are vital to many of 45 Commando’s training objectives, including driver training, combat training and small arms firing.

Confirmation that 45 Commando will remain at Condor will be welcome, and I would be pleased to hear that backed up by firm commitments on the airfield. There is concern that, even if 45 Commando’s future at Condor is confirmed for now, over-zealous cuts to the airfield will compromise its ability to operate effectively. The review must not suggest confirming the future of 45 Commando at Condor with one hand, while the other make decisions that might eventually force it to move. I am sure that it does not need to be stated that, should that transpire, it will have a negative impact on the base’s personnel, their families and the wider community.

The review should include clear, practical steps towards securing Condor’s long-term future as the home of 45 Commando. The Ministry of Defence should take a long-term approach to the review, and it should consider how greater investment in Condor can ensure that 45 Commando has a stable home, with all the facilities it needs, for decades to come, and how that investment can save the Ministry from greater costs in future.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. At the moment, recruitment to the Army is very low. Newspaper reports today say that 20% of Army personnel are unfit to go to theatres of war. Clearly the hon. Lady is outlining that her local detachment is very capable of going to war. Does she agree that, when the soldiers can deliver something effectively to the Army and to the Ministry of Defence for overseas activities, every consideration must be given to retaining the base and to recruitment?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The issue is twofold: it is about keeping our fantastic personnel on board as well as making new recruits. The Ministry of Defence is doing a huge swathe of work on recruitment, which we obviously need to do continually to attract the brightest and best into our armed forces.

The review should also consider what more Condor can contribute to our country’s future defence infrastructure on top of serving as a home to 45 Commando. The Minister has heard multiple representations on behalf of Condor from me and from people across Angus over the past 18 months. He knows that this issue is close to my heart and the hearts of my constituents. I hope he recognises from the Ministry’s perspective the common-sense case for Condor, and reflects it in his response.

I make no apologies for mentioning the huge military tradition in Angus. We must remember that it is the home of the 26th regiment of the Army—the Cameronians—which was disbanded in 1968 because it refused to amalgamate. It was one of two regiments of the British Army that said, “We’re not amalgamating; we’re the Cameronians. We are a fighting force—we come from Angus, and we’re Scottish. We are not disbanding.” Good for them.

I saw that the Minister was listening avidly to the case that my hon. Friend put across on my behalf.

I have made the case for keeping a well-established base in an area with a long and proud military history, where 45 Commando has been truly welcomed into the local community, and where the cadets have added a new dimension to that unique relationship between military and community. The base has worked well for decades for the personnel stationed there. Provided support is maintained, it can continue to do so for decades to come.

It is a pleasure to respond to this debate I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) on securing the debate and I commend her commitment, diligence and persistence in supporting both the Royal Marines and RM Condor in her constituency, which is the home of 45 Commando. I had the pleasure of visiting the base only a few months ago to see the incredible work that is being done by Lieutenant Colonel Forbes and his fantastic unit, as well as other assets based up there.

Before discussing RM Condor, I would like to acknowledge the critical and unique role that the Royal Marines play in the wider spectrum of our armed forces capability. Formed in 1664, during the reign of Charles II, they celebrate their 355th birthday this year. The Royal Marines have much to be proud of in their long history: playing a vital role in Lord Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar; securing and defending the Rock of Gibraltar in 1704; the infamous raid on Zeebrugge in 1918, which earned two Royal Marines the Victoria Cross; as well as the D-day landings at Normandy, where 17,500 Royal Marines took part in the largest amphibious operation in history. More recently, they were essential to the recapture of the Falkland Islands in 1982.

Today the Royal Marines are the UK’s specialised commando force—an elite unit held at very high readiness and trained for worldwide rapid response. They can deal with a wide spectrum of threats and security challenges, and operate in often dangerous and extremely difficult circumstances, including amphibious operations, littoral strikes and humanitarian relief as well as specialist mountain and cold weather warfare and jungle counter-insurgency. When diplomacy fails, the Royal Marines provide Government with an impressive spectrum of hard-power options with which we can respond. On behalf of a grateful nation, I thank every Royal Marine who has earned the coveted green beret.

I thank the Minister for allowing me to point out, as the secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on Gibraltar and as a real friend of the Royal Marines, it is the only unit in our armed forces that has a place name on its badge. It says “Gibraltar”, because that is where the unit made its name.

While serving as a regular officer, I had the pleasure to be based in Gibraltar, and I became very familiar with the treaty of Utrecht and the role that the Royal Marines played in securing the Rock. May it forever remain British. Gibraltarians are very proud people, and we have a strong relationship with the Royal Gibraltar Regiment.

Looking to the future, the 2015 strategic defence and security review mapped out our commitment to the Royal Marines. I am pleased to say that following the modernising defence programme, the future of HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion as amphibious workhorses has been confirmed. The Royal Marines winter deployment programme in Norway will continue, as will their training with US counterparts. We will shortly see women join the ranks of the Royal Marines in ground close-combat roles for the first time.

Turning to the base, my hon. Friend the Member for Angus will be aware that the Royal Navy first forged a valuable relationship with Angus during the last war. The Fleet Air Arm occupied the base in 1940 as a training field to train aircrew in aircraft carrier deck landing operations. In 1954, the base became the home of the Royal Navy aircraft engineering training school. In 1971, as my hon. Friend mentioned, the base became the home of 45 Commando and was renamed RM Condor. Today it also houses 7 (Sphinx) Battery, which is part of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, 2 Signal Regiment, 30 Commando Information Exploitation Group, and the Royal Military Police detachment. It is also home to a number of cadet operations, so it is vital for us to encourage recognition and understanding of what our armed forces do, and perhaps to introduce the idea that a career in the armed forces—specifically the marines—is worth pursuing.

Turning to the future, colleagues will be aware of the wider need to rationalise our defence real estate. The Ministry of Defence owns 3% of land across the United Kingdom, much of which is surplus to our requirements. We have conducted a wide-ranging study into what can be utilised, what needs to be continued, what is vital for training, what is needed for the future and what we can dispense with. We are transforming the estate into one that better supports the future needs of our armed forces. We will be investing £4 billion over the next 10 years to create a smaller, more modern and more capability-focused estate.

On our military presence in Angus, I can confirm that there are no plans to dispose of RM Condor as an operational base. As part of our review, we have been investigating how best to ensure that 45 Commando continues to have access to the facilities it requires to live, work and train. We are considering whether there are opportunities to undertake more defence tasks. What more can we add to our military capability in that neck of the woods to ensure we make the most of that important facility?

The MOD is investing not just in Angus but in Scotland as a whole, as other hon. Members have said. Wider afield, we have the Clyde naval base—another location I was pleased to visit not long ago—which will soon be home to all the UK submarines in the submarine centre of specialisation. The first of nine P-8 maritime patrol aircraft will be arriving in Scotland very soon. Boeing and the UK Government are working together to build a new £100 million operational support and training base in RAF Lossiemouth. In essence, Scotland is important to the defence of the United Kingdom—not just our military capability but our procurement. The Type 26 and our offshore patrol vessels are being built in Scotland, too.

The Minister will know that during the independence referendum campaign, the Ministry of Defence made two promises about Scotland. It promised 12,500 regular personnel based in Scotland—the Government are way off that target at the minute—and a frigate factory based on the Clyde, which still has not appeared. When does he expect those promises to be fulfilled?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the pressures on us in recruitment and retention. It is a competitive environment. Per head, our footprint in Scotland is higher than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, and Scotland does very well indeed from the investment we make, despite the extra taxation that the Scottish National party has sadly decided to inflict on our armed forces personnel—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is signalling, “Carry on, carry on,” but he knows exactly what I am talking about. My hon. Friend the Member for Angus raised that important issue. We have had to step in and fill the gap to prevent the impact it would have had on individual soldiers, sailors and air personnel if it had been allowed to go ahead without our reacting to it.

We are wandering off the subject of Angus, but I will give way very briefly if the hon. Gentleman’s intervention relates to Angus. I do not want to have a debate about taxation in Scotland. The SNP has lost the argument. We have had to fill the taxation gap. Is the hon. Gentleman sitting down, or does he still want to intervene?

As the Minister is aware, I cannot stand up at the same time as him. He raised the issue of taxation. The military personnel in my area make a fantastic contribution, as I know the Minister recognises. If he is talking about the pay gap for higher earners, will he make it up to those who live elsewhere in the UK who are at the lower end of the pay scale and would benefit from a higher income in Scotland?

You will call me out of order shortly, Ms McDonagh, but I will just respond to that point. We need to ensure that people do not suffer, no matter where they are based in the United Kingdom, and people moving to Scotland would have suffered had we not intervened to make up the difference. They support and represent their country, whether they are in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales or England. That is the bottom line, and that is what should matter. With your permission, Ms McDonagh, I would like to continue.

Across our estate, we will continue to combine military and infrastructure expertise to transform the places where our armed forces live, work, train and operate, but we know that we cannot do that alone. We have touched on the importance of working with our stakeholders. As we continue with our basing requirements, we will engage constructively with all relevant stakeholders at every level to ensure that sites are considered for use in a way that benefits defence and the surrounding local communities.

In summary, RM Condor plays a vital role in Scotland’s defence footprint and the defence of the United Kingdom. On a point that was made in an intervention, from where I sit in the Ministry of Defence, I see that the world is becoming more dangerous, not less. It is important that our defence posture grows to match our desires and capabilities to help shape the world as it becomes more dangerous. I fully acknowledge the impact that the changes that we are making to our real estate will have on local communities, but I reiterate our commitment to 45 Commando: our intention is to keep it in RM Condor.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Angus for her commitment and support for our brave Royal Marines and their families, who do so much to support those in uniform. I hope she will be satisfied with the assurances I have given her today.

Question put and agreed to.