Serious questions are being asked if the tugs that outsourcing giant Serco is bringing in from elsewhere to break the tugboat crew strikes at Devonport are conforming to strict ‘nuclear compliant’ regulations.

Unite the union understands that Serco is using ‘external towage operators’ from ports, such as Fowey in Cornwall and Portland in Dorset, when its tugboat crew members at the Plymouth naval base have taken strike action in the long running dispute over new rosters.

Unite has now written to the senior Royal Navy officer at Devonport  asking whether the tugs being used from other ports have the required nuclear equipment on board, including adequate pumps and underwater fenders.

The union also said it understands that the staff manning the external tugs, including the master, do not have up-to-date nuclear training.

The UK’s nuclear submarine fleet uses Devonport for maintenance, refitting and refuelling, and needs the tugboat crews to guide them into the dock and then out again to open sea.

The 37 tractor tug crew have already staged a 96 hour strike and two 24 hour strikes over the imposition of a three week ‘on’, three week ‘off’ rota system which the union said creates health & safety risks.

The crews voted this week by 89 per cent to protect their strike mandate into July.

Unite regional coordinating officer (RCO)  Terry Keefe has written to Commodore Peter Coulson commanding HMNB Devonport outlining the union’s concerns to the RN and Babcock Nuclear Health and Safety which manages the naval base.

In the letter, RCO Terry Keefe said: “It has come to our attention that when the members have taken lawful industrial action Serco have asked external towage operators from other ports, such as Fowey and Portland, to send tugs and crew from their harbours to cover Devonport. 

“It is unclear whether they have the adequate security clearance and whether all relevant bodies were aware of its arrival, such as the MoD Police. 

“Unfortunately we believe that the tugs being used do not have the required nuclear equipment on board, including adequate pumps and underwater fenders. That the staff manning the tugs including the master do not have up to date nuclear training, if any at all. 

“This raises the issue of adequate risk assessments being in existence to allow safe working within the port. 

“Babcock Marine normally supply and fit out the tugs with this equipment and we believe this has not happened.  Therefore should a nuclear event have occurred the dockyard would have been exposed and the people of Plymouth placed in heightened danger.

 “In addition we fear that this cutting of corners could have placed the dockyard’s nuclear licence at risk, if the relevant authority becomes aware of these issues. 

“I felt it only right that you as Commodore of Devonport and the Babcock Nuclear Health and Safety Manager are made aware of these issues to enable you to ensure going forward that full safety measures are in place and to get confirmation from Serco, in detail what precautions they have taken recently when bringing in outside tugs and crews.”

The long-running dispute centres on the imposition of a new three weeks ‘on’ and three weeks ‘off’ roster introduced in December, which Unite has repeatedly warned poses serious health & safety risks for its members, including excessive tiredness. It also has adverse implications for their annual leave entitlement.

Unite wants the previous one week ‘on’, one week ‘off’ system restored.


Notes to editors:

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Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest union with members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.