LEGAL action is being taken against Clyde nuclear base owners over a ‘ban’ on political activity.
Unite union leaders are angry over what they call an instruction by Babcock Marine made to its workforce that they should not be involved in any process which could be described as political ‘lobbying’.
The concerns are that it may ‘distort’ the Ministry of Defence’s new Future Maritime Support Programme (FMSP), which could be worth up to £200m to the bases.
Babcock says that the ban relates employees engaging with politicians over “non-commercially sensitive information”.
The FMSP provides services such as maintenance of ships and submarines, as well as providing supplies, crew accommodation and cleaning services to naval bases.
Currently the work is dominated by BAE Systems and Babcock, but the MoD is dividing the work up into smaller lots in a bid to save money.
Unions have written to Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, claiming that splitting work into smaller work packages to create more competition endangers the country’s military power, including the Navy’s Trident submarine nuclear deterrent based on the Clyde.
The Ministry of Defence says the FMSP scheme “exploits the market to deliver a 30pc saving in support costs [and]delivers an improvement in performance”.
Babcock, which owns the Coulport and Faslane naval bases on the Clyde, has been told by Unite that the “blanket ban prevents ultimate engagement” with the parliamentary process at the Scottish Parliament and Westminster to discuss non-commercially sensitive material.
The legal move follows the announcement by Unite that it is to hold an industrial action ballot, which opens this week, at the Coulport and Faslane naval bases on the Clyde over pay and bargaining rights.
The industrial action ballot closes on February 25, and if support is given from the membership then industrial action including strikes could hit the nuclear naval bases from the middle of March.
Three groups being balloted – Babcock Industrial staff, which covers roles such as electricians, mechanical fitters, plumbers, joiners, Babcock Non-Industrial staff, which covers roles such as engineers, supervisors, managers, and administrative staff, and ISS Facility Services staff.
The MoD’s FMSP competition process is expected to conclude in April 2021.
It is estimated that the work from the FMSP could be worth between £175-£200m for the Clyde bases and is anticipated to run between April 2021 and March 2026.
The figure is based on the Ministry of Defence stating that the FMSP scheme is projected to deliver up to a 30 per cent saving from the previous framework, which had a five-year operating figure of £250M on the Clyde.
Unite has already put politicians on alert including writing to Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, over the looming contract decision warning that splitting national security contracts into smaller work packages endangers the country’s military power and nuclear response capabilities.
Stephen Deans, Unite regional coordinating officer, said: “Unite has sought legal advice over what we believe is a blanket ban by Babcock Marine on our members to legitimately engage in the political process.
“What appears to be the case is that the company are stating that our members can’t discuss anything with politicians over the present and future workplace arrangements following the outcome of the Ministry of Defence’s Future Maritime Support Programme. “This means in practice that there is a ban on workers from engaging with politicians over non-commercially sensitive information even if that is in a private parliamentary session.
“The approach by Babcock Marine is excessive in the extreme to the extent that it appears the workforce can’t discuss the situation at the base with the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, or even the First Minister. We are challenging this position because it’s vital that workers in a democratic society are able to discuss issues at the bases with politicians.”
Unions have been worried that multiple suppliers means responsibility for work could fall through gaps between different companies, creating “a significant risk to national security”.
A leaked letter from the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU) sent to Mr Wallace says the existing system has “delivered substantial savings and efficiencies” and “robust working relationships”.
It warns that separating work “has the potential to undermine these relationships and inject confusion and dilution of accountability into the support of the continuous at sea deterrent and surface fleet”.
The CSEU letter, signed by general secretary Ian Waddell and asking to meet the Defence Secretary about the concerns, also questions whether the new contracts can deliver further efficiencies.
It claims the “only way the ambitious savings can be achieved is by attacking terms and conditions of employment”.
West Dunbartonshire MP, Martin Docherty-Hughes said: “Report after report from the National Audit Office, Defence Committee or even MoD themselves has shown how, over the years, billions have been squandered on contracts because of a lack of proper scrutiny and accountability. Trades unions are a vital part of that scrutiny: speaking for those who will ultimately undertake the work on these contracts and who therefore have the greatest insight as to its viability.
“These unions also keep MPs like myself appraised on this work, and I find their input essential when it comes to the democratic oversight of large contracts like the FMSP. Being deprived of that insight means not being able to fully undertake that role, and it is therefore vital that this gagging order is lifted to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not replicated, and that taxpayers can regain faith in the system they oversee.”
The Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which reports to the Government on major works, has also raised concerns about the FMSP.
In its annual report in the summer, the watchdog placed a “red” warning on the FMSP, upgrading it from the “amber” level from the preceding two years. A red flag means the authority thinks “successful delivery appears to be unachievable” with issues that “do not appear to be manageable or resolvable”.
Jackie Baillie MSP for Dumbarton added: “It is unacceptable that such a blanket ban has been put on Unite members and Babcock employees to limit their ability to engage with politicians and lobby on key issues.
“Everyone, whether an employer or an employee, should be able to have open and direct discussions with elected members – this is key to our democracy and banning trade union members from doing so is an assault on their democratic rights. I encourage Babcock Marine to rethink their position urgently.”
The MoD has said the FMSP has set “ambitious objectives to deliver transformational change, reduce costs and provide a better level of service”.
A spokesman added: “The FMSP is being carefully managed and there is no risk to national security.”
A Babcock spokesman said: “There is no ban on Babcock employees engaging with politicians over non-commercially sensitive information. We fully recognise the right of all our employees, including those who are members of trades unions, to engage with politicians on matters of interest to them using information which is in the public domain.
“Babcock is currently in a confidential procurement process with the MOD and is not permitted to share commercially sensitive information”.