Military Engineering Experimental Establishment, Christchurch

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd April 1970.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ioan L. Evans.]

12.10 a.m.

Photo of Mr John Cordle Mr John Cordle , Bournemouth East and Christchurch

I wish to raise a question of the deepest concern to my constituents—the running down of the Military Engineering Experimental Establishment at Christchurch. I am glad of the opportunity to debate this matter and for the Minister's presence. I want to describe how this sad affair arose and how it has shocked the council and people of Christchurch and the employees of M.E.X.E. Rumours began to circulate towards the end of last year that the establishment was to be run down. As a result, I had a meeting with the Minister just before Christmas at which I was given to understand that, although there would be slight alterations at M.E.X.E., there would not be a serious rundown.

Then, on 1st January this year. the Ministry of Defence wrote to the Town Clerk of Christchurch and other interested parties, announcing in effect that M.E.X.E. was to be run down to 40 per cent of its present size, that 400 men would lose their jobs and that about a quarter would be offered alternative jobs at the Fighting Vehicles Research and Development Establishment at Chertsey.

A number of questions immediately arise. Why was a serious rundown like this sprung on Christchurch and on M.E.X.E. employees after assurances that all was well? Why are decisions like this allowed to explode with no prior warning or discussion? Conduct and behaviour like the Ministry's would be roundly—and rightly—condemned if private enterprise acted in this way. This is hardly the right way to treat the employees or the community in which they have their homes and play a valuable role. This point must be stressed, for it underlines the concern felt in Christchurch at the Ministry's action.

The rundown of M.E.X.E. was properly described by the Mayor of Christchurch as " a great blow " to the borough, and so it is. For one reason, as he went on to argue: What we need is more jobs in the town, not fewer. But there is far more to our objections to this partial closure. For example, the cost to Christchurch ratepayers is likely to be £10,000, or a 1½d. rate, and the redundancies will have a bad effect not only on employment and the borough finances, but also on the general level of trade in Christchurch.

However, the chief reason for our concern can best be understood when it is realised that M.E.X.E.'s links with Christchurch go back to 1919 and that only last May, Christchurch conferred the freedom of the borough on the establishment. Many of its employees have given devoted public service to the borough and they and their families have been an integral and valuable part of our community. We are concerned about their future as well as that of M.E.X.E. and Christchurch.

I should like to ask the Minister a number of questions which have disturbed all of us in the area. First, I want to refer to the way in which the decision was made and the reasons put forward by the Department for making it. We have been told that a Ministry working group took the decision to transfer M.E.X.E.'s work on equipments in the mechanical and electro-mechanical spheres to F.V.R.D.E., at Chertsey, so as to promote greater efficiency and long-term economy.

Economies are needed, apparently, because of the general cut-back in defence spending. As part of the economy drive, I was told in a letter by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army: We intend to test the willingness of industry to undertake more of this work, and the cost implications. I understand that the Ministry believes that after 1974, when the reorganisation is completed, savings of £300,000 a year will accrue, but, before 1974, savings will be partially offset by capital expenditure at Chertsey.

I want to know, first, whether the working group which made the decision was looking at all defence establishments or only at M.E.X.E. and, if the latter is the case, why was M.E.X.E. singled out? Is it the case that savings here are thought to be larger than possible savings elsewhere, or only that the Ministry believes that the social effects and costs would be lower in Christchurch than elsewhere.

Secondly, how exactly have these savings been computed? What allowance has been made for the other side of the equation, namely, the cost of redundancies, of social upheaval and of the lack of use of existing premises at M.E.X.E.?

Thirdly, in calculating savings, what allowance has been made for the hardship caused to individuals by the Ministry's decision?

Fourthly, is the Ministry's belief that industry will be able and willing to undertake some of M.E.X.E.'s work just a pious hope, or is it based on concrete evidence and research? Why was not this factor—and, in particular, the " cost implications " referred to by the Minister in his letter—looked at in detail before any decision was taken? Surely the Ministry should have gone into this in more detail before arriving at its decision.

My next major point concerns the move to Chertsey. On a general point, surely the Ministry's decision reverses the national policy of moving civil servants out of London. The employees who are moved are bound to suffer. For example, house prices are about 10 to 20 per cent. higher in Chertsey than in Christchurch, and there is no indication that local authorities in the Chertsey area have enough land for their own housing requirements, let alone for coping with an influx from outside. How much disturbance allowance will be paid to those who move, and was this amount taken into account when the savings were estimated?

It has also been argued that the office and workshop accommodation at the F.V.R.D.E., at Chertsey, is completely inadequate for the present staff, and that no proposals have yet been put forward for new buildings to house the extra staff from M.E.X.E. At the same time, I understand that the F.V.R.D.E. has great and continuous difficulty in recruiting supporting staff, such as clerical grades, typists and draughtsmen. If this is the case, it seems senseless to move people out of new buildings in Christchurch into an establishment where there are inadequate premises, and into a high cost area where recruitment is difficult.

There are a number of other questions which the Minister should answer. How many of those employees offered jobs in Chertsey have accepted? Has any progress been made in finding alternative employment for those M.E.X.E. workers who have been declared redundant? What help is being tendered to them at present? What is to become of the test grounds at Hurn and Barnsfield Heath, and what is to happen to the lands and premises—some of them new—which will fall into disuse?

I hope that the Minister can answer some of these questions tonight, and if there are any that he is unable to answer now, perhaps he will be good enough to get in touch with me later, for these are vital matters which deserve the closest and most sympathetic attention from his Department. The people of Christchurch feel that M.E.X.E. has been sold down the river, and that the Department's decision was arbitrary and ill-founded. We suspect that the Ministry has made the wrong decision, that it is making false economies on inadequate information, and that it has ignored the needs of the M.E.X.E. employees and of the community in which they live.

I appeal to the Minister to reverse this decision or, at the very least, to give us tonight a far better, more open and more informed justification for sticking to his guns.

12.20 a.m.

Photo of Sir John Morris Sir John Morris , Aberavon

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle) for giving me this opportunity of setting the record straight. I should like to assure the hon. Gentleman right away that M.E.X.E. has not been singled out for special treatment. As was made clear recently by the Government's observations on the Second Report from the Select Committee on Science and Technology, it is our policy continuously to study the need for establishments and the possibility of amalgamation. Similarly, we examine the way in which R. and D. work is done. This applies to Government R. and D. establishments, whether under the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Defence or of the Minister of Technology.

Our concern is to obtain the equipment needed by our forces at a minimum cost in manpower and money. At the same time, when establishments are reduced or closed down, we have a duty to do everything possible to ease the human problems which inevitably arise.

It may be helpful if I say something about why and how we tackled the case of M.E.X.E. which, with effect from 1st April, 1970, has been integrated with the former Fighting Vehicles Research and Development Establishment, at Chertsey, into the combined Military Vehicles and Engineering Establishment under the charge of one director.

The origins of M.E.X.E. go back to about 1919, shortly after the end of the First World War, when the Experimental Bridging Company of Royal Engineers was set up at Christchurch. Over the years, and particularly from 1962 to 1968, M.E.X.E. was expanded to undertake an increasing programme. In 1968, the peak of this programme was reached. It was then evident from our review of requirements in the longer term that there would be a substantial reduction of both the range of equipment and the quantities needed. This situation was indisputable, whether or not the remaining work was to be done at M.E.X.E.

This was the background to our appointing a working party in 1968, including distinguished representation from outside the Service, to examine the nature and size of the resources required to develop our future requirements of engineer and logistic equipment for the Army and the R.A.F. The staff side and the trade union side were informed as far back at September, 1968, of the appointment and terms of reference of this working party. Thus, it is 18 months since notice was given of the possibility of future changes.

The working party reported in mid-1969. It recommended substantial reductions in manpower to accord with the smaller programme and put forward alternative courses for the future conduct of the remaining work, including one for complete closure of Christchurch and another for partial transfer of work. It also recommended that, wherever possible, recognising that there are limitations on this, development work should be done in industry.

We were concerned before making final decisions that the full implications of these alternatives should be studied. The hon. Member will be the first to recognise that if a smallish establishment is being reduced substantially, its overheads such as police, firemen and other services tend to bear more heavily on its output. If, therefore, all the remaining work can be transferred to another establishment without too much capital expenditure, whether in bricks and mortar or compensation, this can be worth doing.

There were, besides, a number of special features in the M.E.X.E. case, such as the need for water test facilities for bridging. Other Departments had also to be consulted.

Such was my concern about the rightness of the decision that I went down, with the information supplied to me, to see what the position was and examine it with my advisers. Following the brief look that I had at the situation, I arranged for a small team, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Army, who I regret is not able to be here tonight—he is away on Ministerial business in Germany—to consider the whole question carefully and urgently. Therefore, everything was done to ensure that the fullest possible information was before me when the decision had to be taken.

The decisions taken following the recommendations made by this group were made known to the hon. Member, as he said, and to other hon. Members who have constituency interests, when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Army wrote to them on 2nd January, 1970. Reference was also made to the decision in paragraph 16 of the Statement of the Defence Estimates, 1970.

The essentials are that there is to be a reduction in the strength of M.E.X.E. from 270 non-industrials to about 100 and from 390 industrials to about 160. These reductions are planned to be achieved over the next two or three years, so that there has been a substantial element of warning. The Bridging Wing, related materials laboratory, engine and container testing facilities, are to be retained at Christchurch, and the balance of the work is to be transferred to Chertsey, where staff will be increased as necessary. As I have said, the two establishments are under the management of the Director, M.V.E.E. The approximate reductions in strength, taking the two establishments together, are: non-industrials, 110 industrials 150. As new projects arise for consideration, we shall look at the possibility of industry taking over some responsibility.

The retention of the bridging work at Christchurch stems, as the hon. Member knows much better than I, from the special physical attributes of the site and from the substantial capital expenditure which would have been involved in transferring this work elsewhere. On the other hand, the transfer of the Mechanical Power and Plant Wings was attractive because of common ground between the two establishments—for instance, in the development and testing of military vehicles, under a variety of conditions, and of components and ancillary equipment for vehicles and materials handling equipment. Their similar tasks require the establishments to have facilities such as test tracks and laboratories, workshops, drawing offices, and administrative services generally.

In consequence, we expect to achieve very useful savings from this rationalisation about one-third of the total annual saving of £300,000 a year which we estimate will result from the rundown. We do not reach this level until about 1974 because of the capital expenditure on works, removal, and so on, during the intervening years. Benefits are also expected from integration under common management of work in areas where there are interfaces, for example, tanks equipped to carry bridges and to be used for other engineering purposes. The reduced capacity at Christchurch will enable us to free about 12 acres of this valuable site for alternative use.

I turn to other points made by the hon. Member. I recognise, of course, that the announcements must have been very unwelcome to the council and the people of Christchurch, with whom the establishment has built up a very happy relationship over the years. But the hon. Member will be the first to recognise that it could have been made much worse. I suspect that there was a sense of relief that the bridging and other facilities are to remain and that M.E.X.E. is not to be closed. First, I understand that when the hon. Member met my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Army, just before Christmas, his primary concern, because of gossip in the area, was to ensure that M.E.X.E. was not to be closed down completely, or considered in isolation, but examined on its merits. The hon. Member was assured that there was no question of M.E.X.E. being singled out or treated unfairly. He was told of the importance attached to the special advantages of M.E.X.E. for bridging work.

But I understand that the right hon. Member was not told of the precise nature of the proposals nor were the manpower implications discussed. I have seen the text of the release for the Press which was agreed with my hon. Friend at the end of the brief discussion, and that seems to be consistent with my understanding. Certainly, there was no reference to slight alterations. I cannot agree that this rundown was sprung on M.E.X.E. employees. As I have said, we gave notice of the examination through the normal Whitley machinery as long ago as September, 1968. The Institution of Professional Civil Servants submitted evidence to the original working party and both the Staff side and the trade unions had discussions with the Under-Secretary of State's working group in the autumn of 1969. The organisation of the combined establishment is to be discussed with the staff and the rundown itself is to be phased over two to three years. There was, of course, no point in announcing the possible decision before it was taken. This would have caused unnecessary alarm. We have ensured the fullest possible consultation on this issue and given very lengthy warning.

The hon. Member asked whether, in estimating the savings, allowance had been made for extra cost. I confirm that it was. We took into account the cost of additional accommodation and facilities at Chertsey, removal expenses, excess rent allowances, other forms of compensation and frictional disturbance resulting from the changes.

The hon. Member's third point was about the allowance made for hardship caused to individuals. All the staff, non-industrial and industrial, who are transferred from Christchurch will be entitled to removal terms, which include payments for transport of furniture, etc., disturbance allowances, additional costs of accommodation and expenses connected with house purchase. There are special terms for those who have only two or three years still to serve and who do not wish to move their home. There will be compensation for those whose employment has to be terminated. I assure the hon. Member that the whole problem is being tackled very sympathetically by all concerned.

On the willingness of industry to undertake some of the tasks of M.E.X.E., the nature of and incidence of the work is such that the scope for major transfer is relatively small. Indeed, it would be something of a bonus. The planned rundown is based on the reduced programme and savings from rationalisation.

The hon. Member is misinformed about the workshop accommodation at Chertsey, which is entirely adequate. It is true that some of the office accommodation is not of the latest standards and there is a scheme for modernisation. However, there will be no major transfer of staff to Chertsey before suitable accommodation is available. As to recruitment, we do not expect that, given the length of the period over which the changes are to be phased, there will be undue difficulty in recruiting such additional staff as may be needed in the Chertsey area.

The hon. Member also asked whether this decision reverses the national policy of moving civil servants out of London. Chertsey is not regarded as London so far as allowances are concerned. But I agree in principle that, in general, we would have preferred not to move staff from the South Coast nearer to London. We discussed this fully with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and with the Department of Employment and Productivity and it was agreed that, since the numbers involved are small, the employment and regional aspects are outweighed in terms of efficiency and economy.

I cannot yet answer the question about numbers of employees who are willing to go to Chertsey. Plans are being worked out very carefully and there will be full consultation with the staff side and the trade unions. We will fit in with personal circumstances wherever this is possible. I understand that there is concern, quite naturally, among the staff to know as soon as possible the names of those who will remain at Christchurch and those who will transfer or become redundant. I am glad to say that in this last category there are likely to be very few non-industrials. The most specialised staff in the establishment are the scientists, engineers and experimental grades. We expect to settle the future of these grades by about June next. Of those who will not be needed at Christchurch, the majority will be offered posts at Chertsey or elsewhere in Government service.

We expect that the numbers and grades of the other non-industrials who will be retained or available for transfer, or employment elsewhere, will also be known by June, although names will not he known until later. The rules for established civil servants require them to move according to the interests of the Service. However, cases of special hardship will receive sympathetic consideration, and every attempt will be made to fit them and certain temporary staff, who are not obliged to move, into vacancies elsewhere in the area.

On industrials, here again the numbers and grades to be retained will be known by June. Established staff will be offered transfers to Chertsey or elsewhere. As to staff who prefer to remain in the area, or will be redundant, so far they seem to have done reasonably well in finding alternative employment and, given the length of time over which the rundown is to be phased, we hope that they will be absorbed fairly readily. An examination is in hand of the economics of continuing to use the test grounds at Hurn and Barnsfield Heath after the P.R.A. wing transfers to Chertsey. Factors to be taken into consideration are the availability of land and facilities at Chertsey, and the cost of movement between the two places.

I think that what I have said can be summed up as follows. The need to rationalise was recognised. We did detailed and careful studies. I went there myself, as did my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. We had the advice of outside experts as well. There was the fullest possible consideration of the issue. There was the fullest possible consultation before coming to a decision. Then the decision itself was announced, and from the moment of announcing it the actual phasing down is to take place over a period of two or three years.

I think that we in the Ministry of Defence, however popular or unpopular the decision may be—and I appreciate the sentiments of the people of Christchurch—can hold our heads high for the way in which we have managed this difficult issue by giving the fullest possible warning to the people involved and catering for their needs.

I would like, finally, to pay tribute to the outstanding work of M.E.X.E, particularly in military bridging. It has achieved world recognition in this field and I am glad to say that recent bridges, particularly the medium girder bridge, the successor to the celebrated Bailey bridge, look like achieving and holding the lead for a long time to come. I am sure that this tradition will be maintained in future from the excellent base which is being retained at Christchurch.

We believe that the decision we have taken is sound and fully justified by our changed situation. Having taken the decision, the detailed working out of the proposals is being handled through well established procedures which will be operated sympathetically and spread over a period which, we hope, is long enough to avoid undue hardship for anyone.

Question put and agreed to

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to One o'clock.