Wednesday 14th October 2020

(3 years, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Virginia Crosbie Portrait Virginia Crosbie (Ynys Môn) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of funding and employment in RAF Valley.

Bora da—good morning. It is an honour and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I must declare an interest, as I am a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme.

Anyone who wants to spend time in my beautiful constituency of Ynys Môn should know that there is an RAF base there. They might never have seen or even heard of it, but they will know it the first time one of the Hawk jets goes overhead. That is also a great way to spot a local because locals rarely look up when the planes fly over. They simply pause their chat for a few seconds and resume naturally when the noise has passed. Visitors, on the other hand, stand there with a shocked look that says, “What on earth was that?” My children hear the jets as they fly over our home near Valley, and I say to them, “It’s the sound of freedom.”

RAF Valley has long been a flying training station for the RAF and Royal Navy. It is the home of No. 4 Flying Training School, where No. 25 Squadron, under the command of Wing Commander Tim Simmons, and No. IV squadron, commanded by Wing Commander Jamie Buckle, provide advanced jet training for the next generation of RAF and Royal Navy fighter pilots. They train in the BAE Systems Hawk TT jet, which has advanced avionics and is the perfect leading trainer for pilots moving on to frontline aircraft, such as the Typhoon and the F-35 Lightning.

No. 72 Squadron, led by Wing Command Chris Ball, joined the base last year and carries out basic flying training in the Texan T1 aircraft. RAF Valley provides two thirds of the UK’s fast-jet training, delivering basic and advanced courses. The pilots trained at RAF Valley go on to secure the skies, protect UK airspace at home and defend UK interests overseas. The station is home to the UK military flying training system, one of NATO’s most advanced fighter pilot training programmes, and RAF Valley is an acknowledged centre of excellence. It is Britain’s equivalent of “Top Gun”.

RAF Valley is the base for the RAF mountain rescue service, which is expertly led by Squadron Leader Ed Slater. His team is on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to save lives and support the UK and local emergency services. Barely a day goes by in the summer without the Daily Post citing another daring rescue in Snowdonia—the kind of press coverage that my team can only dream of. The 202 Squadron is also based at RAF Valley, where, under the leadership of Squadron Leader Martin Jarvis, it teaches UK military helicopter crews highly skilled maritime and mountain flying techniques. There has been an RAF base there since world war two, when it was established as a fighter station to defend Merseyside, the industrial north and the Irish sea from enemy air and sea activity. From 1943, it was a major staging post for United States army air forces arriving from the United States to help the war effort. It has long been established as an operational training base.

Ynys Môn is rightly proud of its RAF heritage and RAF Valley is an integral part of its fabric. I declare a further interest, as my grandparents were in the RAF during world war two—indeed, it is where they met—so I have a real passion for the service, as I would not be here without it.

RAF Valley is more than just a military base. It is the second largest employer on Anglesey after the local authority. It has a Whole Force of about 1,500 personnel made up of approximately 350 military and civil servants and 1,150 industry partners.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. In the short time that she has been in the House, her industrious efforts on behalf of her constituents have been recognised by everyone, including me. I put that on record. She just referred to the numbers. Does she agree that the work carried out by the 1,500 RAF service personnel, civil servants and contractors shows that it is essential for the area—for not just the RAF station, but the community—and that the relationship between the RAF and the community is important? Does she also agree that the Minister should help her in his response?

Virginia Crosbie Portrait Virginia Crosbie
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. It is my privilege to support Ynys Môn. I agree that the RAF plays a significance role on the island.

Many other local people are reliant on work in the station’s supply chain, and many large companies support its output, such as BAE Systems, Babcock International, Ascent Flight Training, Affinity Flying Training Services, Airbus Helicopters and Eurest Support Services. From highly skilled engineers to kitchen staff and cleaners, every single one of them plays a key role at RAF Valley. It is a critical part of the island’s economy. Many children from the base go to local schools and learn Welsh, and staff and their families integrate within the community. Many return to live on the island when they leave the RAF.

The Whole Force team, led by Group Captain Chris Moon, intentionally develops close formal and informal local connections. Engagement activities include community council briefing days, working with Bangor University on history research projects and liaising with Wales armed forces covenant stakeholders. It has actively supported the local island games team which, we have just learned, has won its bid for the 40th anniversary of the International Island games to be held on Ynys Môn in 2025. RAF Valley organises safety campaigns, works closely with the local aviation society and provides personnel to support the local Royal National Lifeboat Institution, mountain rescue and first responder groups.

The rural outlying nature of Ynys Môn means that activities for young people on the island can be sparse. There are high levels of youth unemployment and school attainment is generally below average, particularly for boys. Seeing a clear gap in the market, RAF Valley operates extensive youth engagement programmes involving many local groups. Civilian and military personnel from the base, in particular June Strydhorst and Squadron Leader Graeme Muscat, are proud to support the Jon Egging Trust, with its inspirational and award-winning outreach programme for 14 to 16-year-olds. RAF Valley has hosted the under-16 and under-18 Welsh Rugby Union training camp and offers junior football and tennis camps in association with the Isle of Anglesey County Council.

With Bangor University, RAF Valley supports the Profi project, an experiential learning and mentoring programme aimed at 18 to 24-year-olds, and STEM Cymru projects. It also works closely with Careers Wales to support youth projects across north Wales and help young people to establish transferable skills and find employment. For local schoolchildren, the station hosts on-site STEM activities and school days, and is actively involved in the air cadets, girl guides and scouts. Many of the military personnel volunteer with local youth organisations while they are based at the camp.

Indeed, RAF Valley has an active station charities committee, and many charities across north Wales have benefited from funds raised by the station. Charity track days, aviation society spotters days and the Tour de Môn cycling event are just a taster. I cannot wait to stick on my white beard and face mask and join them on their Santa drop to Ysbyty Gwynedd this Christmas. From organising beach cleans to their thrift shop recycling project, to acting as custodians for a section of the famous Anglesey coastal path, RAF Valley is definitely part of day-to-day life on Ynys Môn. Indeed, the Padre —Mike Hall, who I met recently—told me that they even support entrepreneurs in their community centre.

I am fortunate that the RAF community embraced and welcomed me. I visited the station recently and was taken around by Group Captain Moon, who proudly showed off his station, and particularly his dedicated and devoted staff. He told me:

“Whilst the RAF might seem to be high tech equipment focused from the outside, it is our people, from across the Whole Force, that really give us our edge. Some of our people have worked here for over 40 years, and if you cut them open it would say RAF Valley on the inside!”

While there, I saw and spoke to members of the Whole Force carrying out a range of duties, and from the minute I arrived on station, the site’s “one-team” approach was clear. While visiting 72 Squadron, which played a key role in the battle of Britain, I met many of the military and civilian personnel of Ascent and Affinity. They are rightly proud of the heritage of their squadron. There was a real team atmosphere, and it was great to meet the dedicated workers of “Menai Cleaning”, proudly wearing their 72 Squadron name badges.

It was a privilege to have a go in one of the station’s state-of-the-art flight simulators. Although my flying was not perfect, I was told that it was similar to that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education. I am thinking of giving them a “Top Gear”-style leader board to track the parliamentarians who visit.

Warrant Officer Nikkie Jones showed me around the air traffic control tower, where the professionalism and ability of the controllers was evident as they safely and efficiently directed all the Hawk, Texan and helicopter activities through the skies. Wing Commander Nikki Parr summed up the view of the team best when she said to me:

“In a career of over 28 years within the Royal Navy and the RAF, Valley is the best place I have ever served, with absolutely everyone pulling together to achieve our aim of getting Pilots to the Front Line; safely”.

Skilled jobs are obviously critical to the operational effectiveness of the base, and to the economy of Ynys Môn. Our island is over-reliant on tourism, which, as we have seen only too clearly this year, is a fickle mistress. We need good-quality, well-paid and reliable jobs for our young people to move into when they leave school. Too many are forced to leave the island to seek work elsewhere. RAF Valley, with its innovative technical partners, has provided a much-needed source of employment locally. The teams provide excellent opportunities, with high-quality training apprenticeships and long-term career progression possibilities. I will give a couple of examples.

Laurence Peers was raised in Holyhead and left school with no qualifications. He started working at RAF Valley in 2002, and today he is an experienced supervisor in the avionics and electrical trade. Indeed, it was Laurence who got me in and out of the flight simulator when I visited the station. Laurence said to me,

“please do all you can to keep giving the young people of this island the best chances in life if they wish to stay and live and make a reasonable living where they were brought up.”

John Patchett was posted to Valley in March 1984 and stressed that the Hawk team workforce has 40 years’ experience, and that the force needs to retain and build on that collateral. He told me that he and his colleagues chose to remain at Valley because

“it’s not only a workplace [or] a job to us, but a way of life. The island and nearby mainland is our home, or has become our home.”

His team wants to stay on the island and pass their skills on to new generations of young people who desperately need the kind of training and support that RAF Valley can give them.

Ian Blackie, who works on the T1 planes, told me that the RAF Valley team is absolutely critical to putting RAF and Royal Navy aircrew on to the frontline safely and on time. He said:

“To maintain these 45 year old fighter training jets requires a knowledgeable, highly skilled and dedicated workforce. This knowledge and skill set are developed over many years and are unique to the RAF Valley workforce, with both hands-on maintenance and technical support cells.”

I recognise and appreciate that the BAE Systems contract is currently under negotiation, and I in no way wish to interrupt those discussions. However, I wish to impress upon the Minister the importance of RAF Valley to Ynys Môn. RAF Valley is not “just an employer” but a team, a family; and like all great teams, it operates efficiently because every part of it performs its own role, and does it brilliantly. The people of Ynys Môn want RAF Valley to grow and flourish. We are the energy island, an incubation of innovation, a place for technological creativity. RAF Valley is part of our DNA.

This debate is not just about current jobs. It is about ensuring the long-term future of RAF Valley. It is about keeping RAF Valley as a centre of excellence for training pilots for both the RAF and Royal Navy. It is about retaining and encouraging investment in both the base and its workforce. It is about ensuring that RAF Valley has the most up-to-date equipment, the best planes and, of course, the exceptionally high calibre of technical staff that it has spent years developing. I ask the Minister to tell me not only how jobs will be maintained at RAF Valley but, more importantly, what jobs, apprenticeships and other opportunities he expects to be created for the next 20 years. I ask the Minister to acknowledge the importance of RAF Valley, and to give us his absolute assurance of the MOD’s recognition of Anglesey’s appreciation of the station.

Although I appreciate that negotiations are under way at this time, I want the Minister to acknowledge the significance of the RAF to Ynys Môn. The people in my constituency are rightly concerned about the implications of the negotiations and the timescales to which they are being conducted, so I ask the Minister to set out exactly where the negotiations stand at this time, and when those affected will know what is being decided. Finally, I want to look beyond 2025 and ask the Minister whether he will work with me and ministerial colleagues to get further operations to RAF Valley.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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I call the Minister.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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Order. Have we been given notice of the hon. Gentleman’s wish to speak?

Jeremy Quin Portrait The Minister for Defence Procurement (Jeremy Quin)
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Mr Twigg, I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) had communication from the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David). This was also cleared by my office. But I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman made it clear—he can speak for himself, of course.

Wayne David Portrait Wayne David
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Yes, I had submitted to speak, in fact.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (in the Chair)
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I had not been given notice, but okay. My apologies, Mr David.

Wayne David Portrait Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)
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Thank you for your forbearance, Mr Twigg.

Let me begin my short contribution by congratulating the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) on so accurately and passionately presenting the case for RAF Valley. My particular interest in and concern with RAF Valley stem from the fact that last year I completed the armed forces parliamentary scheme and I was seconded to the RAF. Having completed the scheme and graduated, I am left with huge admiration for the RAF and the tremendous service that it provides to this country. As part of the scheme I visited RAF Valley, and as the hon. Member has suggested, I was struck by the tremendous commitment of the entire workforce there, but also by the huge contribution that RAF Valley makes to the wellbeing of the local economy. It is absolutely central to the future of Anglesey as a community. I was enormously impressed that there is a special focus, as we have heard, on pilot training. It is the centre for pilot training for the RAF and, to some extent, the Navy in the United Kingdom.

However, I have a concern, too. The concern is that 180 jobs could be cut from the essential Hawk contract at RAF Valley by 2033. The fear among the workforce stems from the contract negotiations, which I understand are taking place, between BAE Systems and the Ministry of Defence for the T1 and T2 Hawk aircraft. For the T1 Hawk there is an active proposal, I understand, to move all the T1 depth maintenance to RAF Leeming by 2023. That move alone could accelerate the loss of between 50 and 70 jobs at Valley. It has been suggested by people who work there that that proposal makes no sense, either financially or from an operational perspective. I would like the Minister to comment specifically on that.

Unite, the trade union, suggests that the move is not only ill thought out. There has been a suggestion—no more than a suggestion—that perhaps the Chancellor of the Exchequer has had some influence on the decision making that is taking place, because Leeming is part of his constituency, of course.

There is also concern that a further 100 jobs could be lost by 2033. That relates to the T2 Hawk. Therefore there could be, in total, a loss of 180 jobs. Of course, because the base is so central to the wellbeing of the island and the local economy, that would be a huge body blow to Anglesey. We know full well that the island has suffered a number of very difficult economic and job losses over the last few years, and this would be a further and significant body blow to the island. Therefore, like the hon. Member for Ynys Môn, I am looking for reassurance and clarification from the Minister on the points that we have mentioned.

Jeremy Quin Portrait The Minister for Defence Procurement (Jeremy Quin)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Twigg. I want to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie). I knew her before she arrived at this place. I thought she would be a brilliant advocate for her constituents and she has proved to be so, in the way that she has been tackling me directly about this vital base and vital employer in her constituency, and in securing the debate. She will be a redoubtable representative for Ynys Môn. I am also delighted to hear that she is a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, with the RAF. I am sure that she will learn from them, and that that will be mutual. I wish her well with the course.

I am grateful, Mr Twigg, that you allowed the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) to make a contribution. It was good to see him here. He is another alumnus of the scheme. There is great cross-party support for defence and what it means to Wales. It is incredibly important, as the hon. Gentleman said, and I shall come on to his points.

There are few better examples of the value of defence to a community than the situation at RAF Valley. My hon. Friend made some points about the station’s history, but I shall not dwell on that. I shall dwell on the present and future, as she would wish me to do. British pilots and jets are occupied day in, day out in the defence of our country, our interests and the free world. In the future, wherever those planes are taking off to protect our airspace or that of our NATO allies, taking part in critical combat missions or flying from the decks of our two deeply impressive new aircraft carriers, the people of Ynys Môn will know that those pilots trained and won their wings among them, on the island.

RAF Valley, as my hon. Friend mentioned, works as a team, harnessing the talents of its cadre of service personnel, civil servants and contractors to train the pilots of the future for both the Royal Navy and the RAF. A crucial aspect of generating that team is the strong working bonds with the local communities and employees and—critically, as my hon. Friend said—the employees of the future. I know that my hon. Friend and all who wish RAF Valley well want ongoing investment and the provision of state-of-the-art aircraft, to make manifest our commitment to the base’s future.

As a threat evolves, the training to meet the threat evolves, and the planes required for training evolve. We are committed to ensuring that RAF Valley is at the core of that evolution. The evidence already, at the base, is apparent. As a result of the decision to concentrate basic flying training at RAF Valley—moving assets, incidentally, from RAF Linton-on-Ouse in North Yorkshire to the island—more focus and investment has been delivered into the base. The station has not only benefited from a sizeable part of the £3.5 billion set aside to deliver military flying training; we have recently also, specifically, spent £20 million on refurbishing the runway.

RAF Valley pilots are trained on the modern and sophisticated Texan and updated Hawk T2 aircraft. Those are a great leap forward from the platforms that they replace, with heads-up display that can accurately simulate weapon attacks and other threats, which ensure the maximum training benefit from every sortie. The Government committed, in the 2015 strategic defence and security review, to increase the number of fast jet squadrons and, thereby, pilots to fly them, all of whom will be trained at the expanded training system at RAF Valley, with more Texan aircraft coming on stream to deliver the training. All levels of fast jet training at RAF Valley are being complemented by advanced synthetic training that can accurately replicate the complex and detailed realistic scenarios that pilots need to train for.

It is not only fast jet training that has had that treatment. The lifesaving search and rescue training that also takes place at RAF Valley has also had a valuable boost, in the form of the new Jupiter helicopter. The overall result has been aircraft and facilities that are among the most advanced in the world. Through the hard work of its staff and the students themselves, RAF Valley is preparing to award Royal Navy and RAF wings to the first six pilots to graduate on the Texan next month. That is a fantastic achievement and a huge moment in a young pilot’s career, and it is the culmination of years of effort and preparation.

The impact of our investment in RAF Valley, on the ground, has been clear. Between 2017-18 and 2019-20 our industrial partners who undertake the critical roles of servicing the aircraft and running the training systems grew the number of their employees at the base from around 450 to just over 600, so nearly 150 additional personnel are being employed at RAF Valley to support the Texan and Jupiter aircraft. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out, those new colleagues at the base, whom we welcome, are part of a total team of some 1,500, delivering for the base.

We recognise the importance of investing not only in infrastructure and the jobs of today, but in the skills of tomorrow. My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn made that point very powerfully and she is absolutely right. At RAF Valley, we are proud of the work done on STEM training. Across Wales, some 90,000 students had access to the RAF’s first-rate STEM training programme last year. I know the value of investing in people in north Wales and how it can generate lasting loyalty and an inspiring workforce.

A Babcock-sponsored two-year apprentice programme, in partnership with Coleg Menai in Bangor, has run for four years, generating, to date, 29 apprentices who qualified in aeronautical engineering. I am proud to say that 28 of those are still working at RAF Valley. A further 19 apprentices, currently in training, will graduate in the next two years. Babcock is constantly alive to the need to recruit and retain talent at the base. Seven employees remain who were redeployed from RAF Linton-on-Ouse, and cash awards are paid to employees who successfully refer new colleagues.

Set against the context of that positive background of new assets who have moved to RAF Valley, of new roles created and skills training being delivered, I shall now address the understandable concerns that brought my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn to this debate, regarding the recent speculation around the future of Hawk T1 maintenance and what that might mean for those currently employed by one of our commercial partners, BAE Systems. As she is aware, Hawk T1s are no longer used operationally from RAF Valley. The remaining Hawk T1s used operationally are based at RAF Leeming, at the royal naval air squadron at Culdrose, and in Lincolnshire with the Red Arrows. While every capability is subject to the current integrated review, the Red Arrows T1s are expected to reach their out-of-service date in 2030 and the rest of the fleet in 2027, as set out in the strategic defence and security review 2015.

The RAF is currently undergoing a review of how best to deliver all aspects of servicing and maintenance for the Hawk T1s through to their OSDs. My officials are in discussions with BAE Systems and we are determining potential options for a Hawk 2020 support contract. I emphasise that, at this stage, no decisions have been taken. Any future decision will be based on a range of factors.

Making the right operational decision is critical. The RAF needs to ensure that its planes can be reliably serviced and are constantly available. That emphasises the vital importance of continuing to grow the skills base to provide the engineers that we need at RAF Valley and more widely. Naturally, we also need to consider value-for-money arguments, and we are also keenly focused on the UK Government’s commitment to levelling up the whole of the UK and supporting the Union. Discussions are ongoing and we will update the community as soon as any decisions are made. I re-emphasise that no decisions have, as yet, been made.

The personnel of RAF Valley have a deep commitment to working with and supporting the local community, and my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn touched on that. There are many examples of that close working relationship. I know that there is a strong team at RAF Valley, delivering for defence and also delivering many benefits to the local community. The bonds are very strong. I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to set out the current situation and I thank all Members for their interest and the recognition of the vital need to continue to train our military jet pilots to the highest level of expertise and of the vital role played by RAF Valley. I had hoped to be able to give the hon. Lady a couple of minutes to reply, but I do not believe I can under the rules of the House. I apologise to her and thank her again for bringing the matter to this Chamber. As I say, the bonds around RAF Valley are very strong, as is our commitment to that vital and internationally highly regarded base.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.