Parliamentary debate in wake of Trident safety allegations

The Scottish National Party secured a special ‘adjournment debate’ in Parliament on 28th May in the wake of the allegations made by a Royal Navy junior rating who completed one patrol aboard HMS Victorious carrying the nation’s nuclear deterrent. AB William McNeilly claimed to have witnessed multiple security and safety failures.

Alex Salmond delivered his speech flanked by a phalanx of newly elected SNP MPs, all shaking their heads in self-righteous indignation about how nasty and expensive nuclear weapons are. The McNeilly allegations are suspiciously well-timed, mana from heaven for a party wanting to make an impact in Westminster and bitterly opposed to Trident. Salmond was clearly enjoying himself and started quite reasonably, requesting answers about the detail of McNeilly’s ‘report’. Gradually the tone descended to the suggestion that the MoD is a sinister and complacent organisation engaged in continual cover-ups and the usual rants against nuclear weapons.

The excellent Julian Lewis intervened to make the point that it is quite possible to raise concerns about the safety of our nuclear submarines and weapon systems, while fully supporting the nuclear deterrent. Salmond retorted we would not have this issue if we got rid of the deterrent. Salmond should realise that other nuclear armed nations with aggressive intentions should be the biggest concern for us all.


He did raise an interesting question about why there will be no land-based test rig at Dounreay for the PWR3 reactor that will power the Trident successor submarines, deemed prudent for previous generations of submarine reactors. It should be noted that PWR3 is a simpler and safer design, although more expensive than the PW2 design in service on the Vanguard & Astute class. A new test facility is being built for reactors on English soil at the Barrow yard, close to where the submarines are being built.

The new Defence Minister, Penny Mordaunt faced down the 50 or so SNP members, looking rather lonely on an almost empty front bench. A very challenging first public task for the Member for Portsmouth North, she was able to deliver comments about the RN with some authority, coming from a naval family and a member of the RNR. She did a fine job, starting by paying tribute to the dedication and sacrifices of RN submariners. People who serve because they believe in the effectiveness of our deterrent and want a safe and peaceful world as much as any anti-nuclear campaigner. (It should also be noted that no where in McNeilly’s report did he criticise the concept of the deterrent itself). The minister also pointed out that an increasing number of states are obtaining nuclear weapons and there is a significant threat to our security. Russia is building 8 new SSBNs and embarking on an extensive modernisation of its entire nuclear arsenal and Putin has expressed a willingness to use it.

In response to McNeilly’s ‘report’ the navy took very swift action with an investigation that found:

  • The claims were factually incorrect or result of mis-understanding or mis-interpretation
  • Much of what he claimed was based on historic events or hear-say about things he did not witness
  • There is no evidence McNielly had raised any of his concerns through the chain of command as he claimed, or even privately voiced his concerns to other crew members
  • Concerns about base security were confined to one part of Faslane and did not take into account the complex layers of security around the whole site
  • Ministers, the MoD and the RN is satisfied that the deterrent is viable, safe and secure but are not complacent and will continue to test and develop procedures
  • Not all the claims made can be refuted in public as they are too sensitive from a security point of view.

 

The treatment of AB McNeilly who is obviously guilty of very serious breaches of the Official Secrets Act has been exceptionally lenient. The RN has shown genuine concern for his well-being and seems to accept that, however misguided and stupid his actions, his motives were good. He was only under arrest for 24 hours and was transferred to HMS Nelson in Portsmouth. He is not in custody, not on a charge, allowed contact with family and remains on duty in the RN. Times and attitudes have changed. Not long ago he would have been court marshalled and sent for a lengthy period in Colchester Military Prison. However his career prospects in the RN must be pretty limited as he is unlikely to be trusted to do much in future (except perhaps scrub the heads). He also won’t win any popularity contests judging by the candid comments on his actions by his fellow submarine ratings.

“Protection of the UK is this government’s first duty and we are committed to the defence of Scotland, the capabilities based there and the industries that support them… We must plan for a major and direct nuclear threat to this country or to our NATO allies that might emerge during the 50 years that the next generation of deterrent submarines will be in service… This government is committed to the continuous at sea deterrent and it is highly regrettable when inaccurate commentary leads to public concern.”