Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Lib Dems call on MoD and Unions to resume dialogue

Future of the local naval base * Stop contractorisation, Keech tells Hoon

Liberal Democrat Defence spokesman Paul Keetch MP has urged the local Ministry of Defence and the trade unions to resume dialogue and sit around the negotiating table “to discuss how changes can be managed better.”

In a press conference yesterday, Mr Keetch said Britain wanted the capability of the Gibraltar military base to be maintained “and that can only be if there is a good working relationship between the MoD and the workforce.”

Meanwhile Mr Keetch has also called on Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon “to stop the contractorisation process” and that it was not acceptable that the MoD should want to have a base “on the cheap.”

Mr Keetch said that the Pegasus model could provide the way forward for both sides to achieve good negotiations and this opportunity existed.

The Liberal Democrat MP also said he was not convinced that privatisation was the right thing as a matter of principle, and that there was “some evidence in UK” that this had not worked well.

He declared that in the course of his meetings with trade union representatives yesterday, he had sensed “very genuine hurt,” at the manner in which the cutbacks process had been rushed and “the heavy-handedness of the MoD” in its presentation to the workforce.

“There may be legitimate reasons why this has been done so quickly but the cutbacks have not been properly explained and there is concern about this,” he said.

The Liberal Democrat MP also highlighted the skills to be found at the local base and that these would not be easily replaced by workers coming from Spain.

Mr Keetch also dismissed the conspiracy theories that link the MoD cutbacks to a payback time for the local rejection of the joint sovereignty proposals in 2002.

“I don’t think that is the case. The commitment to the base remains solid as it is important to the UK global defence position.”

He added that it was more a question of the UK’s wider defence budget and constraints. Mr Keetch said:

“I welcome the opportunity to come to Gibraltar once again and am grateful to the Liberal Party of Gibraltar for having organised this working visit.

This visit is all the more relevant given that it comes in the wake of the announcement by the Ministry of Defence of their plans for cutbacks and contractorisation to their establishment on the Rock.

Yesterday I was given a comprehensive brief on this by my Liberal colleague Dr Joseph Garcia.

I have had a number of very useful meetings today in relation to this issue. Firstly I was briefed by the trade unions whose members are affected at first hand by the MOD plans and then I met with the Leader of the Opposition. This afternoon I met with the MOD in Gibraltar and with the Governor. I will be meeting the Chief Minister tomorrow Tuesday.

“There are a number of points which are already clear to me. The first is that I am not convinced that contractorisation is the right thing for the MOD base in Gibraltar as a matter of principle. I can see no reason to change the present situation.

In the United Kingdom itself there is already some evidence that contractorisation has not worked well.

The second point I would like to make is that, even if purely for argument’s sake contractorisation is deemed to be the way forward, how that change is managed is also an issue. It is clear to me that this has not been managed well. The vagueness and lack of clarity which has been explained to me has generated considerable and legitimate suspicions and uncertainty, particularly on the part of those whose are most directly affected.

It is important that the Secretary of State for Defence Geoff Hoon realises that Gibraltar is a special case and that it contributes much more to UK global defence interests than any ordinary base on the British mainland. An overseas base, like Gibraltar, is a stand-alone. The cost of maintaining such a base has to be balanced against the obvious benefit of its stategic location and capability. It is not acceptable that the MOD should want to maintain a base in Gibraltar on the cheap. Indeed, there is always a risk in these cases that this may even affect its operational capability.

On my return to UK I will make representations on behalf of the MOD workforce in Gibraltar at the highest level in the department. I will request a meeting with the Geoff Hoon where I will convey the strength of feeling that exists in Gibraltar among a workforce that has always been there and come through for the Ministry of Defence and for UK over many years. We should never forget that Gibraltar has played a vital role in practically every conflict in which we have been involved from the Second World War to the Falklands conflict and, more recently, the two Gulf Wars. I will therefore ask Geoff Hoon to reconsider the contractorisation decision taken by his department. Given the small increase in defence spending announced in the budget by the Chancellor last week, this additional funding provides an ideal opportunity for the Secretary of State for Defence to stop the contractorisation process.”

Related Link: MoD 'Contractorisation' Poll


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