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Submarines And Mine Clearance Diving: Employment Of Women

Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 24 February 1999

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asked Her Majesty's Government:What is the outcome of their review of the possible employment of women in submarines and in mine clearance diving. [HL1256]

In the course of the Strategic Defence Review we examined the possibilities for maximising opportunities for women in each of the Services, consistent with maintaining our combat effectiveness. The results of this work were set out in the report on the Strategic Defence Review, Cmd 2999, in which we also announced our intention to review the exclusion of women from service in submarines and Royal Navy mine clearance work.We have now completed our review of these matters and have concluded that we should maintain our policy of excluding women from service in submarines and mine clearance diving for medical reasons.

In reaching this conclusion we considered all the evidence very carefully and looked hard for options which might enable us to open service in submarines to women despite the medical risks involved. We are not able, however, to put to one side the MOD's statutory duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

All RN submarines currently in service may remain submerged for up to 90 days for operational reasons. In the course of such deployments, contaminants build up in the internal atmosphere. Although there is careful control of the materials allowed aboard and atmospheric filtration, the build up of contaminants such as carbon dioxide in this closed environment cannot be prevented. Such an atmosphere is not harmful to adults, but medical studies by the Institute of Naval Medicine show that for some contaminants the levels exceed those considered safe for the foetus of a pregnant woman, and can also place the woman's health at risk. In other cases there is insufficient data available for us confidently to recommend with confidence maximum exposure limits which would prevent harm to the foetus and the woman.

A woman, in the first days after conception, may not be aware that she is pregnant. If she were serving in a submarine there is, therefore, at least the possibility that she might unknowingly expose her unborn child to levels of contamination above those considered safe. Even if some women were prepared to accept the risks and volunteer to serve in submarines, the Government could not compromise its duty of care by allowing them to do so.

In the specialised area of mine clearance diving, where there are far fewer posts involved, an unborn child and its mother could be exposed to substantial medical risks caused, in this case by the very high pressures to which these divers are subjected. As far as women who are not pregnant are concerned, the medical risks are less well understood, but there may be a risk to a woman during menstruation. We have accepted the medical advice that women should, therefore, be excluded from working as mine clearance divers at least until more definitive medical advice is available.

The Government and the Armed Forces are determined that the widest possible employment opportunities should be available to women in the Armed Forces. The position on service in submarines and mine diving clearance will, therefore, be kept under review.