Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)


21 NOVEMBER 2006

  Q100 Chairman: Thank you. And Mr King?

  Mr King: Good morning. My name is Bob King. For the purposes of this meeting I am the lead negotiator for Prospect, the trade union. We have around about 1,500 members, mainly professional and scientific grades in AWE at Aldermaston and in Burfield so, unlike my colleagues, my main lead role is in relation to those two areas, although Prospect as a union does have scientific and professional members at the submarine bases as well.

  Q101 Chairman: Can you break down those figures and say how many work at Aldermaston?

  Mr King: Staff?

  Q102 Chairman: The 1,500, your members?

  Mr King: We have 1,500 members at Aldermaston and Burfield, the two sites in Berkshire out of around 4,000 staff. There are other trade unions there as well.

  Chairman: Can I begin by saying thank you very much for your written memoranda which have been most helpful. Let us move on to the first issue, the Government's White Paper and David Crausby.

  Q103 Mr Crausby: As you know, the Government have promised to publish a White Paper on the future of the UK's future nuclear deterrent by the end of the calendar year, something I think we all look forward to. What do each of you hope that its conclusions will be?

  Mr Waiting: As far as KOFAC is concerned, in Barrow-in-Furness we are pleased that the White Paper is, hopefully, going to come before the end of this session of Parliament. We would welcome this. We recognise the arguments that are going backward and forwards about where the deterrent should be based, if we are to have a nuclear deterrent. I think the argument has been won that it should be a submarine-based deterrent, and that the numbers of people that it would employ in Barrow-in-Furness, should it be a submarine-based deterrent, would certainly sustain the workforce that we have at the moment for some years to come. If we do not have this nuclear deterrent based on a submarine platform, well, I am afraid the future for Barrow-in-Furness is indeed bleak. I think at the session on 2 November, Mr Crausby, you mentioned that you came from a cotton town where the industry had folded and people lost their jobs but they moved on and they got other work. In Barrow-in-Furness, as you are aware, we are 33 miles down a cul-de-sac. There is nowhere to go. Before we can get any meaningful employment we have to travel at least 100 miles to the south, and Preston and beyond are the only places for us. We believe that we have the skills in Barrow-in-Furness to build the submarine and to make sure that it is delivered on time and on cost. The amount of work that has been done on current orders on Astute on making the submarine cheaper and more affordable to the MoD is tremendous. The work that is on-going in the plans that the managing director and his team have for the yard has taken the cost out of shipbuilding. The delivery needs to be examined, I know that, and I am quite confident that Mr Easton and his team can do that, but we really do need that platform to be built in Barrow-in-Furness. There is no other yard in the country that can do it. If you even think about saying that we will defer the decision for two years, it would be the end for Barrow in shipbuilding, I promise you that. It is not just the 4,000 people around in the shipyard. It means that in Barrow-in-Furness 70-odd thousand people will suffer. We suffered tremendously in the early 1990s when we lost 9,000 jobs nearly overnight. We are still paying the price of that actually with the skills gap in Barrow-in-Furness. We are overcoming that now, we are getting our way out of that, but it is something that we could not sustain again. Any delay in this order would have a tremendous impact on Barrow-in-Furness and, as I say, it could be the death knell for the whole town.

  Q104 Chairman: We will come to a lot of those issues in some of the questions we ask you.

  Mr Hazlewood: From the trade union point of view, we are actually looking at the continuity of employment to cut out the peaks and troughs from the industry because it has been devastating to the whole of the shipbuilding, aerospace and the submarine-building industries. You get peaks and you get troughs and in the troughs you lose your capability and in a lot of cases these people never come back and when you are peaking you are struggling for jobs. If we can get some continuity all away across the piece that would be very helpful from the trade union point of view. There needs to be a recognition of the skills involved in the industries that we are representing here today. Also we cannot emphasise enough the importance of the work for the local community and this particular yard that we are on about, Barrow-in-Furness, as my colleague Mr Waiting has emphasised, is on a 33-mile cul-de-sac. There is no other employment for that particular area. We also have problems with UK manufacturing at this moment in time, as we are all aware, and we are hoping that the White Paper will address that and lead to UK prosperity and the upsurge in the economy which is a very much needed boost.

  Q105 Mr Crausby: Thank you. Mr Hamilton?

  Mr Hamilton: From an Amicus point of view we welcome the publication of the Government's White Paper. We hope and we believe it will be consistent with the Defence Industrial Strategy principles. We believe that this has to maintain and retain the strategic capability to build these submarines and to replace this deterrent. We believe that that consistency in strategic approach will give the commitment the industry seeks to put the investment in place to maintain those skills that are required. We have heard from our colleagues about the devastating effect of the gap between Vanguard and Astute which had caused that effect and I think that the Defence Industrial Strategy sets out a different way forward on that and gives us a long-term vision. We hope the Government and Parliament comes to a decision soon and, as you have heard, it is important that it does come to that decision soon for the future of the industry and to retain that strategic capability within this sovereignty, within these shores. That will allow the investment to take place that is required to maintain and to further progress the skills, education and investment in retraining programmes within the different respective sites, whether it be in the build, the front-line primes, whether it be in the supply chain or whether it be in the support and infrastructure that is required for that decision to be taken. And we hope that the pre-Budget report and the Comprehensive Spending Review do not impact in any way in terms of delaying a decision or that Parliament decides to delay that decision because, as we have heard recently from the industry captains themselves, there is a specific need for a specific drumbeat of these orders taking place to retain that capability and skills within the industry, and I hope that the White Paper contains that view and that vision and that Parliament then takes its decision.

  Mr King: To echo the points colleagues have made, but I think to emphasise another one—as far as Prospect in relation to AWE is concerned, it is the speed of the decision that is more important than anything else. I believe it is highlighted in one of this Committee's reports about the age profile of our staff and the members at AWE, and if is a decision is not made relatively quickly there will not be the ability to succession plan, eg to pass those skills on. We have got concerns in relation to the newer people coming through and the training that they are getting. It was only announced yesterday, I understand, that Reading University, which is the closest university to Aldermaston, has closed its physics department, which is a big concern. AWE needs intake now to train those people up. It is not sufficient to have the qualifications, it needs the experience to do the work, so whatever the decision is, whether it is going to be new build and upgrade or simply to maintain the current or even decommission, there are different skills and different people that need to be involved, so the quicker that decision the quicker we can do the succession planning and get the new skills in.

  Mr Waiting: I would just like to clarify something. We are not talking about the missile systems. We are talking about the platform and there has been a lot in the press and I do know that people are talking about the actual missiles are going to be replaced. All we are replacing is the submarine. I know that it has been spoken of that you could perhaps refurbish the current fleet of Vanguard class submarines and upgrade them and prolong their life slightly, but I do not think that is a viable solution in the long run and I think it is more costly. I am sorry, I should have said that earlier.

  Chairman: To the witnesses can I say that you will perhaps agree with a lot of the points that your colleagues make, in which case there is no need to repeat them—and thank you very much for not doing so in that last answer session. David Borrow?

  Q106 Mr Borrow: If I can look at the issue of replacing submarines. If we ignore completely the jobs and the skills base and everything around that, what in your view is the reason that the UK needs the capacity to design, build and maintain the nuclear-powered submarines? Why can we not simply buy them from somebody else that builds them without having all these worries about drumbeats and capacity and skill bases, and simply get out of the business and go and buy it somewhere else?

  Mr Waiting: For instance, if you were going to buy them from America, I think the cost of the American submarine is $2.5 billion, which far outweighs anything that you are going to be buying from the UK. The French would be another option, I understand and you could buy from France, but I do not think that they have got the capability to be up to the sort of standard that we require. The other thing is that if you want a strategic defence do you really want it to be built in another country? Are we going to lose all of the skills so that if ever in the future you needed to build a submarine, you would not have the capability, you would lose all the design skills and all the tradesmen who are so highly skilled. Many of the members of this Committee visited the yard in Barrow and saw the people there. You saw the people in the shipyard. They are not ordinary people. They were walking round in overalls and everything else but really they have got extraordinary skills, and to waste those you have got to be very careful in what you are doing and understand what you are doing because you will never ever be able to assemble that workforce again once it goes.

  Mr Hazlewood: I agree with what my colleague says. This is one of the biggest concerns that we have regarding the United States. We believe that the Americans' way of sharing work and its intellectual property is based on protectionism. For example, the British model is of free trade but the manufacturing strategy in America is that in defence and the supply chain 70% of the work has got to be fabricated in America. This applies to ships, planes and other defence equipment, therefore enhancing the American manufacturing strategy and it would be detrimental to the UK losing jobs and skills, as my colleague has already said, without repeating what he is saying, as the Chairman mentioned, I agree with my colleague's comments.

  Mr Hamilton: I think it is vitally important that we retain that sovereign capability and strategic capability. I also think that you have to look at the cost of taking the decision that says you buy off the shelf because the infrastructure and not just the front-line jobs would be affected by that and the communities would be affected by that. As my colleague from Barrow said, it is a remote community and if you look at cities across the UK where the sites are, whether it be the repair or the base or the actual build sites these are in naturally remote communities. That decision would be a devastating decision and therefore the public expenditure to replace that against what it would cost to maintain and continue with that sovereign capability would have to be balanced. Therefore there are two arguments. One is the public expenditure argument but the second is the sovereign capability that has to be retained, in our view.

  Q107 Mr Borrow: The next question I have got is really for Mr King and it is a similar question looking at the warheads. Given that we buy the missiles from the US, why can we not buy the warheads as well? Why do we need to have the capacity to produce warheads here? Why not simply buy the whole shooting match from the US?

  Mr King: Not that I am not saying that it is easy to close down a submarine base, but you cannot close a nuclear facility very quickly so everything—the technology, the science and the experience—is already there. To reinforce some of the comments about the submarine bases, to buy that experience in (which to be fair, thankfully, is not widespread across the world) it is going to take an awful long time and a lot of expenditure to do it. The other thing to reiterate on that point—and I believe the MoD said this in evidence as well—is the critical thing on this is to maintain independence. The other element, particularly in relation to the production of the warheads, is the fact that whatever decision the Government makes there will be a necessity to maintain that facility for some time to go. Without wishing to be trivial about it, you cannot just go and put them in the dustbin and they will go away. There is a need to maintain a facility and, if you are going to maintain a facility, it seems sensible to maintain it in this country to do any of the possible three outcomes that the Government may decide because it is going to have to be there anyway.

  Q108 John Smith: Mr King, you mentioned the future of Reading University earlier. Is there a direct link between Aldermaston and Reading in terms of training and recruitment?

  Mr King: I would have to refer to my colleagues to know if there is a direct link but it seems fairly clear that that is the nearest physics department to Aldermaston and Burfield which are the two sites in Berkshire, so it would seem fairly clear that that would be one that we would want to maintain to maintain the science. I am not actually from the specific area myself.

  Q109 John Smith: But you could come back to us?

  Mr King: Yes, certainly.

  Q110 Chairman: Perhaps it was a generic point that you were making that you were concerned about the closure of physics departments at universities.

  Mr King: I am told by a post-it note that there is not actually a direct link but there is a lot of recruitment that comes directly from Reading University into AWE.

  Q111 Mr Hancock: In the Defence Industrial Strategy they have made it quite clear that there were key capabilities in submarine design and construction and indeed in the operation and refit and how you could retain an onshore facility. What do you consider would be the real risk because it cannot be just a reason to go on with a nuclear deterrent because of the future of Barrow. That cannot be a reason, can it, in realistic terms, but there is an issue, is there not, about the time gap that you talked about between when you stop building the existing run of submarines and when the new contracts will be? What specialist skills would actually be lost? People talk about it but nobody ever emphasises what they are.

  Mr Waiting: For instance, when we stopped building Vanguard and there was a gap between Astute and there were the layoffs in the early 1990s, then we got Astute and that started coming on track, first of all we did not have the basic skills in the numbers required for the outfitting and the welding and all those peculiar skills that are peculiar to nuclear submarine construction because they are extra special skills. Before we got there we did not have the design team. If you have a gap now you will start to lose your design team for the naval capability because submarine designers can design surface ships but people who design surface ships cannot necessarily do the concept design of nuclear submarines, or of ordinary submarines for that matter. Even as we speak now the Australian yards have got the scent that there could be gaps in Barrow-in-Furness and in the shipbuilding industry in the UK as a whole, and they are advertising in the local press now to take these special skills of the design people who do the concept design. Then you have got the drafting people who put that together and then you have got the workforce who carry it out and work to those drawings. They disappear very, very quickly and they are not, as I said earlier, ordinary skills, they are extraordinary skills of that workforce. It is dead easy to think that a welder is a welder. I am telling you in Barrow-in-Furness a welder is not just a welder. Welders for the reactor have got extra special skills and people who design have got the extra special skills which, as I say, once they are gone they are gone for good. They are not lost to Barrow-in Furness because, as you quite rightly say, I suppose you could replicate what we do in another yard (it would take you a few years but you could do it) but you would not have those skills because they would go forever, and if you are not training people in those skills, as my colleague has said from Aldermaston, you lose those skills forever and they are gone for good.

  Q112 Mr Hancock: In that case is there evidence that that training is on-going now?

  Mr Waiting: Yes.

  Q113 Mr Hancock: What are retention rates like in a plant like Barrow?

  Mr Waiting: Actually they are very good because the design engineers, especially for what they are do because what we build is unique to Barrow-in-Furness, cannot get that sort of experience and work anywhere else. The designers like doing that sort of work, that is what they do. They are not necessarily all based in Barrow-in-Furness. BAE Systems have other sites in the United Kingdom where some of these men and women are based. Retention is very good because of the type of work. There are obviously offers from other places that poach, for want of a better term, our workers if they can, and they are offered some quite extraordinary sums of money I understand to go and do that. I also understand that some of them do like the challenges that are put to them from the design and build of a nuclear submarine.

  Q114 Mr Hancock: Do the others feel much the same?

  Mr Hazlewood: Just to be a bit more specific Mr Hancock, yes, very much the same, but regarding the specific skills you asked the question on, you look at the skilled technicians or the draughtsman that are designing these submarines, and also the skilled and semi-skilled trades such as welders, platers, scaffolders, electricians and electronic engineers, and while ever you have got work you will have a workforce in such an area because there is nothing else, quite honestly, for them in that area.

  Q115 Mr Hancock: What about the situation at Aldermaston and Burfield?

  Mr King: In relation to training?

  Q116 Mr Hancock: And holding on to people.

  Mr King: The retention is good although there have been specialist skills lost at AWE, which is one of the main concerns. The difficulty with it, and one of the issues that our members always bring to our attention, is the fact that they gain a qualification, a degree or whatever, they then come to Aldermaston, they learn the nature of the business they are involved in, and then you are pretty much limited to where else you can go and work because of the fact that it is so specialist. I have an example with me which is a job advert which is for a fairly middle grade for a joining development scientist/engineer. If you compare the qualifications and experience required for that to an outside role in standard engineering, because of the types of material that you are dealing with, the level of qualification and experience, understandably, is considerably higher. The difficulty that we have noticed from looking at the equivalent of our members in scientific roles in the commercial sector is the average time that they are staying with an employer is around three to four years before they move on and try and develop somewhere else. One of the key things we have got at AWE is the ability for a scientist to have a long career progression without the need, dare I say it, to succumb to swapping into a management role, so the longevity is there and certainly from the scientific environment people can come there and have a job for a long period of time, which is how the job is developed.

  Q117 Mr Hancock: If I could then come to you first, when you said if we do not replace the deterrent there will be an on-going need to maintain the existing capability and to make sure it was safe, what sort of period of time would you estimate? If there were no replacement for Trident, how quickly would the situation at Aldermaston and Burfield go down? Would it be a fairly gradual decline over the full length of the life cycle of the existing boats or would it accelerate quite considerably?

  Mr King: It is not so much the life cycle of the supply; it is the life cycle of the material that has got to be maintained, and it leads off the question I believe was asked earlier about why can we not buy in. If we buy in we do not know the life cycle. If we are supplied with a warhead from the US, we do not know the properties of that. One of the key roles that Aldermaston is maintaining is the stability of the current warhead stockpile so it is going to be effectively over the life cycle of the existing warheads obviously into decommissioning.

  Q118 Mr Hancock: But you are employing 4,000 people there on the two sites. Are they all employed now on just that task?

  Mr King: No, there is maintenance.

  Q119 Mr Hancock: Of the plant?

  Mr King: There is maintenance of the plant and there is maintenance of the materials and maintenance obviously of the stability of the current stockpile, which is the majority of the work that is done, and obviously decommissioning work that comes back in from warheads that have come back from use on the submarines. That is the majority of the work now and obviously they are then refurbished and replaced and sent back out. So it is basically keeping the current stockpile flowing, which is why we were saying earlier there would be a change. If it was the case that there was no longer a need for the deterrent, then obviously the work would be solely on the decommissioning and maintaining the stability of materials now. If it was to either upgrade or continue with the current, then the work would remain very much as it is now (although AWE is expanding just to keep up with the work that it has got now). If it was a new build obviously there is a new set of skills that we would need to look at and probably those are the ones that are more worrying because the place has been there some time and the skills to originally develop this are getting older and older.

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