At Hilton in my constituency there is a vehicle depot that is run by the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. It covers some 270 acres just outside Derby. I understand that it is responsible for the storage of about 7,000 vehicles of every kind—scooters, cars, taxis, fire engines, ambulances, lorries, Land Rovers: in fact, everything that moves and belongs to the armed forces, right up to huge tank transporters which sometimes block up our local villages. They are not regarded, in technical language, as specialised vehicles. They are "B" vehicles.
On the same site, there is also a REME workshop, whose job it is to repair those vehicles. The whole operation at Hilton is the maintenance and storage of vehicles. It is one great big garage—one of the largest in the country. It covers a very large area. It employs about 250 of my constituents and also constituents of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), who wishes to be associated with my remarks.
After the war there were dozens of these depots all over the country. Recently most of them have been closed. Only three are left in England. The others are at Ashchurch and Ludgershall. All of them are now associated in management terms. The other depots specialise in vehicles such as tanks that are known as "A" vehicles, but Hilton is the only depot that is entirely a civilian operation. It reports to military personnel who are based at one of the other depots.
In August 1982, as part of the review of military spending, it was decided by the Director General of Ordnance Services to take a look at Hilton. The question was this: "We reduced the number of depots from about 30 down to 12 and then down to three. Do we need three? Would not two do?" In the aftermath of the Falklands, an investigation team was set up to see whether Hilton should be shut.
My involvement started a year or so later, in 1983, when I was elected to this House. My constituents came to see me and I exchanged letters with Ministers. I have examples of the signatures of every person who has been a Minister in this Department. I asked lots of parliamentary questions. An official visit was arranged. I was delighted to meet Colonel Bowden, and Brigadier Berrigan showed me around. I was most impressed by the quality of the work done there, by the efficiency of the place and by the good humour, flexibility and commitment of the work force at all levels. Therefore, I made representations about this potential closure. Eight months after my visit and nearly two years after the study started, back came the message: Hilton was indeed needed and would not be closed. This came, for example, in a letter from my noble Friend Lord Trefgarne dated 5 July 1984 in which he said:
The study has now been completed and its conclusions recommend a continuing requirement for a Central Vehicle Depot organisation for the forseeable future based on the three vehicle depots at Ashchurch, Hilton and Ludgershall.
That was confirmed a few days later in the answer to a written question that I tabled. It reads:
its main conclusion was to confirm the need for the existing three depots, of which CVD Hilton in South Derbyshire is one."—[Official Report, 10 July 1984: Vol. 63, c. 457.]
So Hilton was needed. However the Ministry of Defence was not satisfied and another study was to be undertaken to see whether it was possible to privatise Hilton. Indeed, the term that has been used in most of the letters since has been to contractorise. From 1984 to now, another two years, they have been investigated all over again. I believe that the report that was the result of that investigation was available in September 1985. I have seen a one-and-a-half page summary of it. Since then we have had silence.
I asked to see the Minister, my noble Friend, but I was told it was not quite appropriate because a decision had been taken. Nothing has been published; no decision has been taken as far as we know, hence this Adjournment debate. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will realise that a patient Job would have got fed up with all that, and would be having a screaming fit by now. After four years of investigating this depot my constituents and I are thoroughly fed up.
What we are all after is a better, cheaper service. In recent years at Hilton the service has been streamlined quite considerably, even though the military commitment has been maintained. In 1979, I am told, there were over 200 industrials working for the RAOC. Now there are 123, and that includes security staff. In 1979 there were more than 100 people working for REME in the workshops. Now there are, I believe, 68, so the industrial staffing numbers have come down by over 50 per cent., from over 300 to 191. In addition, there are approximately 50 non-industrial staff working there.
There has been a ban on recruitment for more than a year for all grades, and the resulting squeeze on manpower has not done Hilton's reputation all that much good, because its job is to get the vehicles out and it has to leave undone other things that are low priority, such as valeting the vehicles. What the majors and the lieutenant-colonels must think of the rather grubby vehicles they are getting I do not know. It does not help the service at all. I should add that all of my figures come from diligent searching in public sources and nobody has contravened the Official Secrets Act. Hilton has been forced as a result to use contract labour, such as contract drivers, willy-nilly, and I am not sure that doing it in this way, almost by the back door, is at all satisfactory. The view taken is that the work has to be done.
The policies of the MOD in recent months have made the continued existence of Hilton even more important. My hon. Friend said on another occasion that much of our MOD work is done in the south of England. Seventy per cent. of military personnel and 60 per cent. of civilians working for the MOD are based in the southern region. Those are areas that do not need the extra jobs, but Derbyshire and Staffordshire do. The south can do without the extra competition for land and for housing, but the north and the midlands are keen to see growth and development and are desperately anxious not to lose what they already have. Unemployment in Derby is 13 per cent. and I have a feeling that is more than in Pirbright and in one or two other places down south that could probably manage with less work.
If the MOD wants to save money while not compromising the service, there are a number of things it could do, probably without contractorising and certainly without investigating the place all over again. But it would involve listening to the people who work at Hilton and who have some good ideas. For example, within the fence of the depot they all work as one—the depot and the workshops. There is complete flexibility among the work force. Electricians will do fitting, storekeepers will drive, the drivers will put a battery in, and so on, and yet they report separately to RAOC and REME.
They have allocated to their budget two lots of headquarter expenses, all of it military. Therefore, one of their suggestions is to make it a single company. That would be more efficient and would save money. Another proposal is to ask whether civilianisation is not a better way to run this service. Of the three depots only Hilton is entirely civilian: the others are part military. I am told that there are reasons for this, that the military personnel need to know how to run them. Fine, but they can be seconded to Hilton, they do not need to be permanent staff. I am also told that a 24-hour commitment is required and that only the military can provide that.
The experience at Hilton, particularly during the Falklands crisis, surely shows—I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm this—that civilians can and do offer exactly the same commitment, and do so without question. In any case, the argument about commitment applies just as much if the depot was privatised. The military have no monopoly on patriotism. I think that we dealt with the argument in the debate on the privatisation of the royal ordnance factories.
But the military are expensive. If we compare the salaries of civilians with the appropriate military equivalent, we get some interesting figures. For example, the top rank civilian who works at Hilton costs £17,823. The equivalent military rank is a lieutenant colonel, who costs £32,385—that is only his pay—almost twice as much. The executive officer at Hilton costs the state £11,117. The equivalent rank is a captain, who costs £19,661—again almost twice as much. The lowly clerical officers, the people who actually keep the place going, cost £7,641 each. The equivalent is a staff sergeant costing £14,827, again a ratio of almost two to one. May I emphasise that the military costs are only pay, national insurance, pension and gratuity costs? If we add accommodation costs and the other little extras that the military have, such as school fees, the cost of employing a soldier, especially a senior soldier, instead of a civilian, become astronomical. I believe that the case is firmly made that it is cheaper to have civilians, such as my constituents, with no loss of efficiency in service.
The case made by the people who work there was summed up best, not in my words, but in the words of Mr. O'Hara, who is one of the union representatives, in a letter dated 24 July 1985, in which he said:
"FACT We at Hilton can issue vehicles more efficiently, more cheaply than the other Depot with a military presence.
FACT We have greater flexibility of labour than the other depot with military management.
FACT We have a loyal work force who, when called upon, can, and do, work the same hours and often more than our military counterparts, sometimes if needed on 24 hour call out, many with some 17–20 years service to the crown behind them …
FACT We are a shining example of how to run a Vehicle Depot cheaply and efficiently …
FACT We have been studied countless times for a number of reasons and every study has been sponsored by the military. It's time the picture was looked at by an independent body.
He went on to say—I have a lot sympathy with this—
The truth is that we are an embarrassment because of our efficiency.
My constituents are worried and suspicious about some of the advice that my hon. Friend the Minister has been
given. If Hilton were to shut, we would lose the strategic benefits of having our vehicles on more than one site, and we would lose a site giving major employment in an area not overly well endowed with employment. If Hilton were to be privatised we would disrupt an excellent and smoothly running service. We would probably save very little. Indeed, redundancy costs would make it quite an expensive operation.
In either case, we would lose the dedicated and loyal service of a first-class work force and we would end up with something less efficient in both performance and cost. But if Hilton were allowed to stay open, with some of the ideas of the work force put into practice, the service would benefit, the Ministry of Defence would benefit and my constituents could continue to be as fanatically proud of the work that they do for our nation as they are now, and quite rightly so. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider these points and set our minds at rest tonight.