Antonia Cox was Conservative candidate for Islington South and Finsbury at the general election and is author of More Bang for the Buck: how we can get better value from the defence budget, published by the Centre for Policy Studies.
A new front has opened up in the battle over deficit reduction. The Prospect union has this week sent a letter to the Defence Select Committee, warning that safety at the Faslane naval base on the Clyde, home of the nuclear deterrent, might be compromised by job cuts.
At a time when painful measures in October's Strategic Defence and Security Reviewv – such as scrapping the Harrier fleet, along with service personnel and civilian job losses and other efficiency gains – are reported to fall £1 billion short of the MOD's £8 billion budget reduction target, a public row over savings already assumed would be bad news for the department.
Unions often use safety arguments without good cause, and this could be shroud-waving – but the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, should prepare defences against the claim before it gains any traction.
The letter to the Committee comes at a time when Dr Fox is due to announce whether Coulport, the part of the base where the Trident warheads are stored, will be operated by a consortium headed by the US defence giant Lockheed Martin. Unions, Faslane’s peace protest industry and the SNP are already objecting. The Nats’ Westminster leader Angus Robertson has raised the stakes: “Weapons of mass destruction are the most sensitive areas of military technology and should not be privatised,” he told Scottish media in October.
Prospect, which does not donate to Labour, is focusing on the “authorisee agents” at Faslane, 43 of whom remained in the MOD’s employ when most of the staff at the base were moved to the contractors Babcock Marine, as part of a privatisation in 2002.
According to Prospect vice president Alan Gray, speaking this week at the launch of a report threatening the loss of key skills in the defence sector, keeping these 43 within MOD was necessary to protect the command and control chain down to the waterfront. Following a round of savings, he says, there are now only six staff left as MOD rather than Babcock employees, with the result that they lack career progression opportunities and could one day “all leave the base in a minibus”. Then, he said, MOD would no longer be an “intelligent customer”.
Of course, this is all part of the union's campaign against the loss of 25,000 civil service posts within MOD and its agencies, along with the loss of around 20,000 defence industry jobs which it is predicting, not without reason.
However, the union may well get a hearing from the committee, because it has framed its arguments with reference to the 2009 Haddon-Cave report into the Nimrod disaster, in which 14 crewmen died when a Nimrod MR2 aircraft exploded over Afghanistan in 2006.
Mr Haddon-Cave blamed named individuals and an RAF culture in which budgets had become more important than ensuring airworthiness. He also criticised those responsible for specifying a 20% cut in operating costs for the Defence Logistics Organisation without carrying out an overall risk assessment. Mr Haddon-Cave confronted Dr Fox in person with his latest views earlier this month.
And it is true that one of the holes in the Strategic Defence and Security Review is a sense of what has to change in MOD to make the staff reduction of 25,000 possible. It would be unfortunate if a privatisation achieved long ago at Faslane awoke fresh criticism for compromising safety, just at a time when privatisation could help improve delivery of capability in many areas of defence.
The Defence committee should get to the bottom of whether there is really any danger as a result of the changes at the base. And even if there isn’t, ministers would do well to get their retaliation in early, in case the cuts of 25,000 jobs repeatedly promised by Dr Fox are tainted by association before they have even begun.