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Electrical Shore Supplies (Nuclear-powered Submarines)

Volume 602: debated on Wednesday 18 November 2015

[Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered restoration of electrical shore supplies to nuclear-powered submarines.

It is a pleasure to have this debate under your chairmanship, Ms Buck—and to have secured it, but I say that rather guardedly, because it was never my intention to bring this issue forward for debate in this place. My intention from the outset was simply to ask a series of questions of the Ministry of Defence on behalf of my constituents, who approached me with serious concerns about the changes to nuclear safety procedures at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde at Faslane. It was not until the MOD replied, or perhaps I should say did not reply, to my questions that I felt the need to bring the matter to this Chamber.

Last month, as the constituency Member of Parliament for Argyll and Bute, which takes in Faslane and Coulport, I was approached by workers at Faslane who had learned of proposed changes to the long-standing work practices relating to the restoration of shore power to nuclear-powered submarines. They had already raised their concerns with their employer, Babcock, but with no success, and unable to glean what they considered to be an adequate response, they turned to me as their local MP, in the hope that I would be able to secure answers from the Ministry of Defence on their behalf.

I then tabled a series of very specific questions relating to the extension of the limit of restoration of electrical shore supplies to nuclear submarines at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde from the existing 20 minutes up to a maximum of three hours. Rather than answering my questions, the Ministry simply grouped all my detailed and specific questions together and responded to them using a single standard response—a response that I believe hid behind national security, although my questions were specifically about health and safety. I believe that the Ministry of Defence, by dismissing those questions in that manner, has shown me and my constituents a great discourtesy. I am firmly of the opinion that safety at nuclear establishments, and the safety of nuclear materials, is not just a matter for the MOD or Babcock; it is of the most serious concern to my constituents who live beside Faslane, whose concerns cannot be dismissed in such a high-handed fashion.

For far too long, the Ministry of Defence has relied on the stock answer of “Move along; there is nothing to see here,” in the hope of avoiding scrutiny, accountability and transparency—and in many ways it has got away with it. That is unacceptable, and frankly it will not wash any more with me or my constituents, who refuse to be fobbed off with such an answer.

I will give a little background on what has been happening at Faslane, and on the situation that led my constituents to approach me with their concerns. As I understand it, in October 2014 Babcock entered into a contractual agreement with the Ministry of Defence to provide a range of support services at Faslane and Coulport for a period of five years. Part of that arrangement called for a reduction in costs totalling £77.5 million over the lifetime of that contract. No department, including the nuclear operations department, was to be exempt from the cuts.

Prior to that agreement and the swingeing cuts of £77.5 million being announced, a working group comprising management and the trade unions was established to study shift patterns in the nuclear operations department. That working group, I am led to believe, identified a number of different shift options that were to be taken to Babcock management, and then presented to the workforce affected by the proposed changes for their consideration. It appears that the plans to negotiate shift patterns have been shelved, and that Babcock is instead pressing ahead with a radical and unilateral plan of changes to the working patterns in the nuclear operations department. The trade unions understand that the proposed changes will allow Babcock to reduce shift patterns by more than two thirds—a measure that will save around £4.5 million in staff wages, thereby contributing significantly to the £77.5 million of savings demanded in the new contract.

However, the new changes to shift patterns are not, in and of themselves, the problem. The major concern is that in order to facilitate the new shift patterns, Babcock will need to relax the long-standing safety principle of 20-minute restoration of electrical supplies to nuclear vessels alongside the jetties, extending that 20-minute period to a maximum of three hours. I should point out that the 20-minute restoration limit and the current manning levels for out-of-hours cover have been in place for decades; minimal changes have taken place in that time. Every time the 20-minute restoration period has been challenged in the past, it has been vigorously defended and change has been rejected. As I understand it, regular 20-minute training sessions and programmes are still carried out to prove that the 20-minute restoration can be accomplished by the nuclear operations department with existing staff levels.

There can be no doubt that the workers at Faslane are loyal and hard-working. They do a vital job and are not prone to alarmist talk, or flagging up problems when there are not genuine concerns. Their paramount concern and the overriding priority for them is safety: safety of the vessels, the base and, by extension, the entire community in the Helensburgh and Lomond area. When they, with their decades of experience in these matters, feel so marginalised that they are forced to approach their MP for help, we know that they have genuine concerns and serious worries. That is why, when they approached me a few weeks ago, I was only too happy to listen to their concerns and to seek answers from the Ministry of Defence.

I tabled a series of detailed questions that I believe focused on health and safety and on how the decision to extend the 20-minute limit to a maximum of three hours was reached. Unfortunately, my questions were grouped and summarily dismissed by the Ministry of Defence in a single, stock, off-the-shelf answer, which basically said, “We look after security and safety. There is nothing else you need to know; telling you anything further would prejudice the capability, effectiveness and security of our armed forces.” Does the Minister really think that that is an acceptable answer to hard-working, loyal employees, who have sought an answer from their employers to serious questions?

Questions were asked about: health and safety; why important changes to long-established safety routines are being proposed; who is driving the changes; the money that will be saved by implementing the changes; what studies have been made of the safety implications of the changes; and whether an independent nuclear safety assessment has been carried out. Can they really be dismissed with a reference to national security and the fear of undermining our armed forces? If that is the case, the Ministry of Defence is saying that absolutely nothing that goes on behind the gates of Faslane is open to scrutiny, or is in any way transparent—that it is, in fact, accountable to no one.

I remind the Minister that the MOD and Health and Safety Executive agreement states, on page 2, that the Ministry of Defence is

“a Crown body accountable to Parliament for Defence, including the activities of the Armed Forces.”

There has to be accountability and transparency. We recognise the importance of national security, but I believe that this issue has gone far beyond that. Had I been daft enough to ask for the position of the nuclear submarine fleet when it was out on patrol or for details of military training exercises, I could and should have been told by the Ministry of Defence that it would not answer such a question on the grounds that the information was likely to prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the armed forces. However, the questions I asked were about health and safety, not national security. For the Ministry to hide behind national security, and to claim that responding to my questions and the concerns of employees at Faslane would undermine the armed forces, is absurd and a public relations blunder of epic proportions.

The prevalent attitude that we have seen so often is, “There is nothing to see, so move on.” That cannot continue, because it simply breeds mistrust and suspicion. If nothing that goes on at Faslane is open to scrutiny, and if nothing is transparent, every denial from the Ministry of Defence will be accepted less and less by those on the civilian side of the fence.

On day one of my parliamentary career a few months ago, I raised the case of Able Seaman William McNeilly and his catalogue of alleged safety breaches aboard nuclear submarines and at Faslane. Within 48 hours, every one of those allegations had been dismissed as having absolutely no substance, and again we were advised, “There is nothing to see here, so move on.” This is history repeating itself.

There are plenty of other examples; a quick trawl through the parliamentary records reveals that on 28 October, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) asked

“what arrangements are in place to monitor Babcock’s performance and safety record”.

The response referred to “appropriate measures”. On 8 September, my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) asked

“what notice is given to emergency services in advance of visits by nuclear convoys”.

The response was:

“Police forces may advise fire and rescue services…I am withholding specific information on the period of notice given to the emergency services as its disclosure would”—

this is classic—

“prejudice the capability, effectiveness and security of the Armed Forces.”

A question was asked in the House of Lords in June about what assessment the Ministry of Defence had made of the UK’s nuclear deterrent and its vulnerability to espionage, as we have no maritime patrol aircraft. The reply was that the Government continually conduct assessments but are not prepared to comment further.

The Ministry of Defence is acting like the boy who cried wolf in reverse. The situation is ridiculous, so I hope that the Minister will today end the policy of saying nothing, and recognise that the workforce at Faslane have genuine concerns. They are concerned about their future jobs, and about the safety of the vessels they are charged to look after. Will he reply, either today or in a full written answer, to the questions I submitted two weeks ago asking what discussions his Department has had with Babcock on the proposal to extend the limit of electrical shore supplies to nuclear submarines at Faslane? Will he also tell me whether his Department instructed Babcock to extend that time, or was that a customer-driven request—that is, did the Ministry of Defence ask for that, or did the idea emanate from Babcock?

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Will the Minister tell me why, after decades of military, industrial and political consensus on the 20-minute limit, it is now felt necessary to make this change? Has his Department made an assessment of the financial saving accruing to Babcock? What analysis has he undertaken to ensure that the change is science-driven, not cost-driven? Can he enlighten me on what the Astute-class vessels’ procedures are, in terms of the 20-minute shutdown? Finally, will he tell me whether an independent nuclear safety assessment has been carried out? If so, what did the report say?

Let me be clear that this is not an old courtroom trick of asking questions to which one already knows the answers. These are genuine questions, and I am seeking helpful answers. As I said, I believe that nothing that I have said or asked is a threat to national security or could undermine our armed forces.

If the people of Helensburgh and Lomond and the workers at the base are to have faith in this facility, we have to be able to believe that those in charge will always make safety and security their top priority, and any suspicion that corners are being cut to save money has to be thoroughly investigated, but how can we have confidence when every single concern raised and brought to the attention of the authorities is met with the same standard response of “Move along; there is nothing to see here”? Confidence is further undermined when the concerns of a loyal and dedicated workforce are similarly dismissed.

I ask the Minister to seize this opportunity to show that transparency, accountability and appropriate public scrutiny are not alien concepts, and to restore the confidence of both employees at the base and my constituents that decisions are being taken in the correct manner and for the right reasons.

Thank you for chairing these proceedings, Ms Buck. I congratulate the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) on securing the debate, and I thank him for giving me an opportunity to address this issue, which I agree is important. It is appropriate that we have an opportunity to discuss it in the House.

I appreciate that the safety of nuclear-powered submarines has been and continues to be a subject of interest not just in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency in the immediate proximity of our submarine base, but to everyone in the United Kingdom. The Vanguard-class strategic ballistic missile submarines, along with the majority of the Royal Navy’s attack submarines, are based at Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and the whole operating Royal Navy submarine fleet will be based there by 2020. Clyde is one of the largest employment sites in Scotland, with about 6,800 military and civilian jobs, which will increase to about 8,200 by 2022. I pay tribute to the hard-working people who man and maintain Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde to support the Royal Navy submarine fleet based there.

The hon. Gentleman expressed the concern that the workforce have about their jobs at the site. What I have just said reinforces the decisions taken under the previous Government. The primary threat to the jobs of those working at HMNB Clyde is from the proposals of the hon. Gentleman’s party and the Scottish Government, rather than from this Government and the work that we intend to place there. However, I listened carefully to his speech and will endeavour to address the points that he raised.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, despite his suspicions to the contrary—I know he knows this privately—there are certain aspects of the operation of submarine nuclear reactors that I cannot discuss owing to security considerations. That is not a fig leaf; it is real. I am sure that no hon. Members would wish the security of the fleet to be compromised. Having said that, I will provide as full a response as I am able to on the issues that he raised. Before I do so, I would like briefly to set in context the Government’s policy for the safe and secure operation of nuclear-powered submarines.

The protection and defence of the whole of the United Kingdom and our dependent territories and citizens is the primary responsibility of Government. In a world that is becoming more uncertain, as we have seen in the actions of a resurgent Russia, the Government are committed to maintaining a strong and capable fleet of attack and strategic ballistic missile submarines and the continuous at-sea nuclear deterrence that provides the ultimate guarantee of our national security. In speaking today of our submarine fleet, I would like to take the opportunity—I am sure that all hon. Members would echo this, whatever their personal views on the merits of the nuclear deterrent—to thank the crews of all our submarines, their families and the wider community for their continued dedication and commitment to delivering the mission.

I turn to the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. I want to make it absolutely clear that safety is our priority. Although operating a nuclear reactor in the submarine environment provides unique challenges compared with doing so in the civil sector, the rigorous safety measures that we adopt ensure that submarine reactors remain safe at all times. The safety of reactors is rigorously assessed at every stage of their life, from design and build to operation and disposal. Safety is independently regulated in accordance with the law and by our own Ministry of Defence independent nuclear regulator. Together, those regulators impose robust controls that are at least as stringent as those in the civil sector. We are also held to account by external regulators and, ultimately, here in Parliament.

In Scotland, radioactive substances are regulated by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. A memorandum of understanding between the Ministry of Defence and the SEPA includes provisions that enable the agency to carry out its regulatory role effectively while ensuring that sensitive information is properly protected. Similar arrangements are in place with the Office for Nuclear Regulation.

I trust that what I have said will reassure hon. Members that our submarine nuclear reactor operations are subject to independent, impartial and robust regulation. Any suggestion to the contrary is, quite frankly, wrong. As I have said, I am constrained by security considerations in the details that I can discuss, but I can say that the Ministry of Defence regularly and routinely reviews the procedures regulating the operation and maintenance of submarine nuclear reactors. That process naturally includes consultation with industry partners and regulators, but no change can be implemented until it is proved to be safe and, where applicable, has been approved by the relevant regulatory authorities.

Regarding the hon. Gentleman’s specific concern, it may be helpful if I explain that submarine reactors have a diverse range of cooling systems, including a dedicated system that is not dependent on electrical supplies. As I have previously informed the House in answer to a question from the right hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), there have been only four events in the past 20 years involving the loss of electrical power to a submarine reactor cooling system when in port. In all four events, there was no disruption to reactor cooling as a result of the loss of electrical supplies.

That is the measure of the safety of our submarine nuclear reactors. It is simply not the case that a disruption of the electrical shore supply to a submarine will inevitably and rapidly lead to the submarine’s reactor becoming unsafe. It is quite wrong, and indeed alarmist, to suggest otherwise. Any proposals to change reactor operating procedures must be seen in that context. The Ministry of Defence would never propose a change that could lead to a reduction in reactor safety. Were we to do so, any such change would simply not pass regulatory scrutiny.

What I have said may raise in the minds of some hon. Members the question of why submarines require a shore electrical supply and why, if the loss of that supply poses no immediate threat to reactor safety, its restoration is subject to strict regulatory control. That question is simply answered. Once the reactor has shut down, the submarine continues to require a supply of electricity to operate its internal systems, such as lighting to allow sailors to get around the submarine. Although those requirements can be met from other sources, in the longer term a shore supply is required. As I have said, however, reactor cooling can rely on a diverse range of systems, not all of which depend on electrical supplies.

I fully understand that nuclear-powered submarines are a contentious issue for some hon. Members, and that they are likely to remain so. I want to address the question asked by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute about whether the proposed changes have been inspired by Babcock, and in particular by the savings required in the company. My answer to that is we have made no assessment, in the review of procedures, of the impact on Babcock. This is a Royal Navy-initiated activity with the MOD’s support. Proposed changes to shift patterns have nothing to do with why we are undertaking this exercise. That was one of his concerns, and I hope that I have set it to rest.

I genuinely thank the Minister for his answers, but can he understand my frustration that all my previous questions were grouped together and given one stock answer? Does he agree with me that the Ministry does itself no favours by doing that, because it leads to suspicion and conjecture? Would it not have been an awful lot better if the MOD had answered each of my questions on merit, in which case we would not have needed this debate?

I can understand why the hon. Gentleman might have been somewhat frustrated by the reply that he got. I have to say that it is not unusual for Departments—across a range of activities, not purely the MOD—to find themselves not always capable of delivering the kinds of answers that the Members who pose them might like to receive. Many of the questions that the hon. Gentleman asked got into topics that were covered by security concerns, which was why he received the answers that he did. I hope that during this debate, I have managed to allay some of his concerns.

In closing, I can only reiterate that the Ministry of Defence operates its submarine nuclear reactors with the highest regard for safety. As in the civil sector, appropriate and targeted assessments of operating processes and procedures are undertaken to ensure that our robust arrangements remain valid. The process involves not only the independent regulator but our industry partners and independent nuclear safety advisers, who play a significant role in ensuring that those processes and procedures are as robust as they need to be to ensure the safe operation of our submarine nuclear reactors. Only when a positive consensus of advice has been reached to the effect that reactor safety will not be compromised, and that there is a clear benefit, are changes to operating processes and procedures undertaken. As I have said, the process includes our independent regulator and, where necessary, external regulators.

The Royal Navy’s attack and strategic ballistic missile submarines are an essential capability for the defence of the whole United Kingdom, and I hope that what I have said goes some way towards reassuring hon. Members that our submarines are operated with the highest regard for the safety of their crews and the public. Through our nuclear-powered submarine programme and the independent nuclear deterrent that it supports, we ultimately guarantee our national security and the freedoms that we continue to enjoy in a democratic society.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered restoration of electrical shore supplies to nuclear-powered submarines.