For Arbroath and RM Condor there is a touch of déja vu about the discussion. No sooner have we digested the detail of a basing review and listened to a pronouncement from the UK Government on the future of the facility than fresh uncertainty emerges. It was just five months ago that the results of the latest basing review were announced and we were told that although the airfield at RM Condor was to be sold, the remainder of the facility in my constituency was safe from the axe. As I said when the cabinet secretary made his initial statement on the outcome of the review, from a commercial perspective, I wonder who might want to buy an airfield within a Royal Marines base, given the likely security restrictions.
However, let us acknowledge—taking account of the closure notices that are being served on Fort George, Glencorse, Redford barracks and others, and that Scotland is losing one fifth of its defence estate—that there was a sense of relief locally. Therefore, when shortly before the recess the Parliamentary Bureau scheduled the debate, I wondered for a moment whether others might have more that I to contribute, but then came the revelations in The Times that the MOD was facing a £10 billion shortfall and the “financially struggling” Royal Marines would be reduced in size and capability—so, off we go again. The story claimed that the most direct impact would fall on 42 Commando, which is based in Plymouth, with the unit taking on a training role, rather than acting in rotation with 40 Commando and with 45 Commando, which is based in Arbroath. However, we were also told that 200 marines would be lost to the service through failure to replace them, and when the defence secretary appeared on “The Andrew Marr Show” he failed to rule out cutting the number of marines.
Earlier this year, during a visit to Condor, Sir Michael Fallon insisted the base was safe. If one was to ask the UK Government today, I expect that it would stand by that commitment. However, it is worth considering comments that were made a few weeks ago by Sir Michael, on a visit to RMB Chivenor—home to the Commando Logistic Regiment—which, it had been announced, was set to close under the basing review. He claimed that no final decision had yet been reached, but pointed out, significantly, that the airfield there is no longer in use. He continued:
“The overall intent, and I want to be honest about that, is to move units towards Plymouth and Devonport.”
The fact that an airfield’s being dispensed with is used to justify a closure sits alongside acknowledgement that the direction of travel for the Royal Marines—as we have all known for some time—is consolidation in the south of England.
My Westminster colleague Mike Weir MP has called on the defence secretary to spell out the genuine long-term plans for Condor. I back that call, for economic and security reasons. As the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Jobs and Fair Work does, Mike Weir and I fear that there is a chipping away at the viability of the base, especially with the artillery battery already having been earmarked for removal.
Continuing the Conservatives’ constitutional obsession, Maurice Golden harked back to the last independence referendum. Sir Michael’s predecessor, Phillip Hammond, also made a flying visit to Condor, during the run-up to the 2014 referendum, to commit to the future of the base. Three years on, we in Angus are anxious to learn whether that commitment meant anything or might yet turn out to be another broken Better Together promise.
Before anyone suggests that that is scaremongering, let me point out some of the recent history pertaining to Condor. We were here before, in 2004, as the MOD reviewed Condor’s status under a rationalisation programme. Its future was looked at again in 2009, before it was concluded that, at a cost of between £60 million and £100 million, relocating 45 Commando to the south-west of England would be “inappropriate and unaffordable”. Two years later, however, as the MOD sought to address a funding shortfall via a strategic defence review, we were told that the Royal Marines would make that very move—albeit with an Army unit moving into Condor. However, when we got to 2013, it emerged that the switch had been abandoned, because moving 45 Commando south did not represent value for money and the Army did not require the Arbroath facility for a base. Now, the airfield is to go, with potential consequences, as a result. By any measure, the UK Government’s approach to Condor is haphazard and unsettling, and it is unfair on the marines and their families.
On the subject of fair treatment, let us consider another aspect of the issue: namely, the responsibility that the UK Government—indeed, any Government—has to ensure that service bases are properly maintained. Earlier this year, it was claimed that the Royal Corps of Signals’s new recruits who were trying to grapple with complex signalling equipment were so cold that training was being hindered. Chronic boiler failures at the RAF headquarters in High Wycombe had forced more than 120 personnel to live with intermittent hot water and central heating for three years, and there were problems at the Royal Artillery barracks in Woolwich. That article followed a story that revealed that crumbling boilers at the home of the Foot Guards in central London meant that soldiers were being forced to perform ceremonial duties at Buckingham palace having not showered for days. It has since emerged that guardsmen were also using both their field-issue sleeping bags and normal bedclothes in an effort to keep warm at night.
Last year, Westminster’s Public Accounts Committee described contractor CarillionAmey as
“badly letting down service families”,
and said that its performance was
However, a CarillionAmey source told The Daily Telegraph that problems were being exacerbated because the MOD preferred to commission what the source described as “firefighting” repairs, rather than to pay to replace outdated equipment on any significant scale.
I highlight those essentially English issues because they have spilled over into Scotland. When personnel returned to RM Condor after Christmas, they discovered that there was no hot water or heating in some of the quarters because two boilers had conked out. Although repairs in one block had been carried out by February, the repairs in the other block were not completed until March.
I do not know about other members, but I do not think that that is an acceptable situation for our military personnel to find themselves in. Up our way, you see, we hold our service personnel in high regard. David Stewart was right to speak about the social covenant. Yes—there will be the odd flare-up in the community in social settings but, overall, the relationship between the marines and the local public is good.
Just a few weeks ago, 45 Commando used its freedom of Angus status to parade through Arbroath to commemorate its having been based there for 45 years. That honour was given to it in 2003 in recognition of its long service and the close association that the unit has enjoyed with the area. Unfortunately, the parade took place on a Parliament sitting day, so I was unable to attend. However, this debate affords me an opportunity to record my support for 45 Commando. It is part of the fabric of Arbroath and wider Angus, and many former marines and their families choose to remain in the area when their service comes to an end.
It is entirely appropriate that the current marines had the opportunity to mark their strong connection with the area by marching through the town centre. However, we in Angus expect the MOD and the UK Government—any UK Government—to have the same regard for the unit and to provide it with appropriate facilities. I acknowledge that, in the light of recent problems and Mike Weir’s intervention, the MOD has now committed to replacing some other boilers on the base. Most important is that we need a degree of certainty about the unit’s future, so I look forward to the Government responding to my MP colleague’s call.