Dr Julian Lewis: Anybody looking at the title of this Adjournment debate could be forgiven for anticipating that I am yet another Conservative Member standing up to complain about the Government’s closure of an RAF base. That would be very far from the truth. I am delighted to say that the Minister has been giving the utmost support and consideration to my efforts to prevent the closure of the base. He has been able to do that not only because he has safely survived the reshuffle, which I am delighted to see – [Interruption.] I am delighted that he is delighted. He has also been able to do it because RAF Hythe is not a British base at all. Since 1967, when General de Gaulle threw NATO bag and baggage out of France in the atmosphere of fraternal French military support to which we have become so accustomed, the base has been a US Army facility in my constituency. It masquerades under the title of a Royal Air Force base and deals primarily with water craft, as one would expect given such consistency so far.
What RAF Hythe has done over these years is quite phenomenal. It has developed from what was originally a storage base into an advanced network of shipbuilding maintenance repair and upgrading skills that is second to none in the US Armed Forces. That has been acknowledged. In order to give the House an idea of what the equipment that is so well looked after by the personnel at RAF Hythe is for, I ask Hon. Members to imagine the Mulberry harbours, which, perhaps by coincidence, were also developed, constructed and deployed from the Solent and Southampton Water region. Mulberry harbours were the artificial harbours that enabled a port to be opened on the coastline of occupied France when opposed landings were being made.
That is the work to which RAF Hythe has been essentially committed. It is involved in the preparation of causeways and the maintenance and upgrading of port-opening vessels, floating cranes, and medium-sized and small landing craft. Another particular line of expertise has been the maintenance of fleets of small vessels that were originally deployed on the back of a very large ship based in Diego Garcia, a place that I may mention again later. That large vessel, which was a semi-submersible, would be able to transport the small vessels to anywhere they were needed, flood down, and float them off, and thereby enable a floating point of deployment for the application of military force to a hostile shore.
Over the years, the staff of RAF Hythe, who are, with the exception of two or three American personnel, entirely British, have been called upon to perform many functions, and they have never failed. They wrote the textbooks on the way to dehumidify and preserve water craft and other military assets so that they can be pre-positioned in various theatres around the world. What is more, they developed the techniques and wrote the manual for bringing those dehumidified and otherwise stored assets safely back into service and ready for deployment within a 10-day period. In 2002, it was decided that 30 of those vessels should be pre-positioned to serve the far east theatre at Yokohama north dock in Japan. In 2003-04, a similar pre-positioning of another 30 such vessels was arranged to be carried out in Kuwait naval base. That was in no way to diminish the role of Hythe, which was integral to setting up those two bases and has been essential in carrying out the missions that the bases perform.
At Yokohama north dock, an attempt was made to contract out one of the less skilled functions that the direct US Army-employed work force of Hythe had previously performed. It was such a failure both in the quality of the work and the cost that the services of ITT, the contractor company, were dispensed with and Hythe was recommissioned to carry on with the work.
The key document to which I shall refer is an audit, which was carried out early this year and presented on 13 March to Major-General Johnson, who is at Army Field Support Command at Rock Island, Illinois. That is the next step up in the chain of command from which the facility at Hythe derives its work and instructions. The audit examined four options for continuing the work, which the work force at Hythe, who are directly employed by the US Army, has hitherto carried out.
Option 1 was to carry on with Hythe, option 2 was to continue with full and open competition, and options 3 and 4 were to use other agencies that had done similar bits of work, which related to part of the functions that Hythe had hitherto performed either for the Army or the US Navy and ascertain whether they could apply. Five criteria applied: technical capability of sustaining the water craft; overall cost of the operation; contract duration; lead time to the award, and resident skills and expertise.
Let me give the assessment of option 1 – Hythe. The audit, by the US Army’s audit agency, found in favour of Hythe that maintenance costs were projected to be significantly lower through continuing with Hythe than the contracted operation alternatives of options 2, 3 and 4. It found that there was a completely trained work force, total resident knowledge and technical capability, and that Hythe provided maximum flexibility, resident expertise to support exercises and no security problems because all employees are security cleared through their affiliation to the US Army.
What was against Hythe? Only two things. The base closure was stated to be already in process, although nothing had been announced and no explanation has ever been given, and Hythe was not funded for the financial year 2007 and beyond.
Options 3 and 4 did not come close. It is interesting that one of the arguments against option 2 was:
“Readiness may be impacted if any delays to contract award by 30 September FY06”,
and that it would be a lower risk if the award date were postponed until 31 December 2007.
At the end of the process, a matrix was produced showing the four options and judging them against the five criteria. Hythe was the only one to score a 1 – the top grading – for technical capability, a 1 for overall cost, and a 1 for resident expertise. The other two criteria, which covered contracts and how long it would take to get the operation up and running, did not apply because Hythe is already up and running. So Hythe had a top score of 3 – the lower the score, the better. Option 2 scored 10.5, option 3 scored 16, and option 4 scored 12.5.
This resulted in the realisation that, whereas it would cost $18.42 million for Hythe to carry on doing what it does, both locally and in running the bases in Japan and Kuwait, that sum would be at least doubled by option 2, to $37.73 million. The cost of closing Hythe – we assume that the Americans would act in good faith and pay off the pension fund in full – would have to be added to that $37.73. That would involve another $72.85 million, making a grand total of more than $110 million in the first year, compared with $18.42 million.
Three additional vessels in Hythe have been separately budgeted for, which would keep the base going until the end of 2007. That would lessen the risk even if option 2 were chosen. When that is taken into account, we need to add another $27 million to the costs that would result from the closure, because the uncompleted boats would have to be towed back across the Atlantic for completion in US dockyards. If they stayed at Hythe, however, and if the work force were allowed to continue to work on them for that extra year, it would cost only an extra $10 million. In other words, this is the economics of the madhouse.
The audit recommended to the commanding general in Rock Island, Illinois, that the closure notice that was under way – for reasons that have never been explained – should be rescinded, and that Hythe offered by far the best value for money. We do not know what went on when that audit report was received at the Rock Island base in Illinois. We do know, however, that no explanation has been given, and that no notice of any significance has been given. There seems to be a desperate rush to close the base at Hythe before the end of the American financial year on 30 September.
By contrast, other bases that carry out only part of the work – in Germany and Italy, for example – are not being closed, even though the base at Germersheim in Germany consistently fails to meet its targets. It carries out work not on the water craft but on flat-bed trailers and mobile military generators, in which Hythe also specialises. A similar function is carried out at a base at Livorno in Italy, which has frequently been beset by labour troubles and strikes.
We wonder whether Hythe is being picked on in this way because the American Army authorities feel that it would be easier to divest themselves of their loyal work force in England than to divest themselves of people who are not direct employees of the US Army, and who are protected by all sorts of labour laws in countries on the continent that have shown themselves to be somewhat less reliable to the United States of America when the chips are down than have the people from this base in the United Kingdom.
In short, we have a facility that is versatile to the extent that when it was invited to send volunteers to Afghanistan, 14 went, and let us remember that they are civilians and do not get medals or other recognition. Incidentally, volunteers were requested from the Rock Island headquarters, and I believe that three were obtained. Out in Afghanistan, the volunteers from Hythe were able to turn their hands to augmenting the armour on armoured vehicles to protect the lives of US service personnel. This is an expert force: as I said, it wrote the manual for the preservation and reactivation techniques of pre-positioned stocks. It is an economical force – it is half the cost to the US taxpayer compared with the next best option, and that is only the yearly cost, apart from the colossal closure costs to which I have referred. It is a reliable force and has never taken industrial action in well over 30 years of service to the United States of America.
I have little time left, as I am anxious to hear the Minister’s reply. I shall therefore mention quickly some of Hythe’s commendations. One says:
“Reserve Storage Activity Hythe is officially commended for extraordinary meritorious service in support of Operation Desert Storm”.
“Presented to Reserve Storage Activity, Hythe, for your outstanding support during the Somalia deployment”.
“Certificate of Appreciation ... Presented to Combat Equipment Base-North Atlantic, Hythe, England. In recognition of your outstanding support and contributions to Task Force 143 during the ... download of the MV American Cormorant”.
That is from Diego Garcia, an important base. We are showing rather more support to the Americans than they might perhaps be said to deserve, given the way that they are treating RAF Hythe. On one occasion, RAF Hythe was told:
“Your commitment to excellence directly contributed to improvements in United States Army force projection capabilities”.
It also received an official commendation:
“Their efforts, long hours and dedication has ensured that the work has been completed in a timely manner and within budget constraints.”
Some of the tributes that I have read go back a number of years, but here is one from last Tuesday, from the manager of the watercraft equipment site at the Kuwait naval base:
“Just a note to let you all know that the crew of maintenance personnel I have out here supporting our mission is doing a superb job” –
those are the Hythe people out in Kuwait. It continues:
“They are well ahead of our forecasted production schedule, in fact so much so that we feel we can have 7 of the 8 LCUs” –
landing craft –
“at 10/20, minus the C41SR equipment, by the end of the”
financial year. It continues:
“The skill set mix is right for what we have to accomplish, very little diverting skills to another skill requirement.”
Reading through the jargon, I think that that means that Hythe is doing a very good job.
I do not have time to quote from the 30 letters that I have from different companies whose ancillary business is worth £4.5 million to the local economies of this country. Those businesses are not just from around Southampton but from areas as far afield as Leicester, Sunderland and Cwmbran.
Will the Minister meet the work force, enlist the aid of the Foreign Office and, in particular, make written representations to the American authorities on behalf of the continuation of Hythe? There is no strategic reason for its closure or political justification for closing what amounts to 95 percent of the US Army’s footprint in this country. There is no economic justification, as it is a betrayal of the US taxpayer as much as of our ancillary industries, and there is certainly no moral justification for the closure.
[The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr Adam Ingram): First, let me express my appreciation to the Hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) for what was undoubtedly a thorough and well-rehearsed contribution, and for the support that he is showing for his constituents in seeking to understand the reasons for the United States’ decision to withdraw from RAF Hythe. Of course, had his speech been more concise I should have had more than 10 minutes in which to respond.
As the Hon. Gentleman knows, the decision to withdraw US Army operations from RAF Hythe by 30 September this year was confirmed in a letter to the Ministry of Defence only this afternoon. I agree with him that it will be very disappointing news for the local work force, especially given the valuable contribution made by RAF Hythe’s highly trained and dedicated workers over the years. The Hon. Gentleman paid generous tribute to them.
I remind the House that this was very much a US decision. I know the Hon. Gentleman understands that. Notwithstanding the case that he presented, I know that he is also aware that the decision was made as part of a wider US review of the global posture of US Forces across the world. That has resulted in the reconfiguring of the US “global footprint” and reductions in US forces, particularly those stationed in Western Europe.
While I fully appreciate the Hon. Gentleman’s concern for the local community, the US decision should be viewed in a wider context. RAF Hythe is one of several RAF bases in the United Kingdom made available to United States visiting forces under the terms of the NATO Status of Forces Agreement of 1951. It is one of the smallest bases of that kind, and the only US visiting force facility in Britain that is used exclusively by the US Army. It is also unique in that it is the only US facility in the United Kingdom that handles marine assets by the waterfront, as the Hon. Gentleman pointed out.
Although RAF Hythe is the only US Army base in the UK, there are other US visiting force bases in the UK that employ considerable numbers of US military personnel, including some members of the US Army. Overall, the US visiting force presence totals more than 20,000 service personnel and their families, who represent a considerable investment in the US-UK special relationship. I recognise that notwithstanding that wider presence, this will be a difficult time for the 200 or so civilians employed by the US Government at RAF Hythe who are now considering their future as a result of the US decision to withdraw from the base.
The Hon. Gentleman dealt with the function of RAF Hythe, so I need not go into it now. There are currently only two US personnel stationed there, including the facility commander and a small complement of 12 Ministry of Defence police. However, there are around 210 civilians employed by the US Government in connection with the base. Those personnel are employed in a wide variety of trades. Approximately 170 are “blue-collar” workers, while around 40 fulfil “white-collar” functions in supply, administration and facilities management. The blue-collar posts are mainly in support of the marine repair function, and include marine mechanics, electricians, platers, pipefitters and painters. Many of the personnel have been carrying out those specialist roles since the start of the operation in 1975, and their loyalty and commitment are commendable.
RAF Hythe also has a first-class apprenticeship training regime, which has produced a highly trained and skilled work force. Such is the value of their skills that a significant number of them are in demand overseas: the Hon. Gentleman mentioned many of the areas in which they are involved. They are employed by the US Government around the world – for instance, in locations in Kuwait and Japan. At any one time, between 30 and 50 of the personnel directly hired locally are deployed to overseas sites for periods of three months at a time. A full team in Kuwait comprises 23 staff, and a full team in Japan comprises 27. Given that the bulk of those posts require skilled blue-collar workers, the deployed task falls largely to the 170 marine engineering tradesmen.
The Hon. Gentleman knows how disappointed I was to learn today that the US Army no longer requires RAF Hythe, when the US Government confirmed their decision to cease their operations at the base by 30 September 2006. The Hon. Gentleman first raised this issue early in the new year –he was on to it early on – but it was not until early April that the Ministry of Defence received notification of the US Government’s intention to withdraw from the base by this September. As I said, only today did final confirmation of the decision come through.
I know that our US ally will acknowledge the considerable contribution that RAF Hythe and its work force have made to both countries’ defence over the decades. That will doubtless be reflected in their treatment of their committed local work force, who have given such loyal and sterling service over the years. Indeed, the US Ambassador and I spoke about that very point.
During my discussions with the US Ambassador, I fully recognised that the final decision can be made only by the US Government. I was keen to register then the MOD’s interest for two principal reasons. First, if the decision to withdraw from the base were formalised, as has since proved the case, I wished to make it clear how important it was that all those affected understood the timing of, and reasons for, the decision. Secondly, I wanted to register the concern, expressed this evening by the Hon. Gentleman, that careful consideration be given to mitigating measures to ease the effects of the withdrawal locally, and to the thoughtful and sensitive handling of the situation. I know that the Ambassador duly registered that point.
I was made aware that the MOD police complement at RAF Hythe was informed by its management of the US proposals in early April. Separately, I have been made aware that the approximately 210 civilians employed by the US Government were notified of the decision earlier today. I mention this because I have been copied a letter that the chairman of the local national employee council wrote to the US President and to the Prime Minister, among others. Again, I registered that point with the US Ambassador during my conversation with him. That letter made some very significant points, which the Hon. Gentleman cogently expressed in this debate.
Let me deal with the UK MOD personnel, which is where my responsibility lies. The MOD police senior management were quick to inform and brief their officers about the consequences of the US proposal to withdraw from the base. I understand that senior management within the MOD police are considering redeployment of their officers, as necessary, and it is appropriate that we handle our personnel accordingly.
It is too early to determine the long-term future of RAF Hythe. If the base is to be vacated, a detailed process will be gone through to look for alternative uses. The Hon. Gentleman will be fully aware that that first involves looking for alternative defence uses. If that is not possible, the site will be offered to other Government Departments, and appropriate rules for disposal will be applied. We are very conscious of the quality of the property that we have. Even when we ourselves vacate such property, we try at all times to ensure that we are not divesting ourselves of valuable assets that would be difficult to replace or replicate. A sensitive process is gone through in that regard.
In concluding, I hope that I can go some way toward satisfying the Hon. Gentleman’s concerns. The news confirmed today is particularly disappointing for those civilian employees who have worked so hard in support of the US military mission at RAF Hythe for so many years. I will draw the US Government’s attention to this debate, and I know that the Hon. Gentleman will pursue his case with vigour at all appropriate levels within the US Administration. Like him, I am keen to continue our excellent relations with our closest ally, the United States, and I know that none of his comments attacked that very close relationship. He is a great admirer of that relationship, as are this Government, and it will continue in the decades to come.]