CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

HMS TIRELESS: FATAL ACCIDENT (FRONT BENCH) – 12 June 2008

Dr Julian Lewis: I begin by thanking the Minister for advance sight of his statement and of the board of inquiry report. That is a long, detailed and thorough document which does not pull its punches. It is not surprising that it took longer than the originally anticipated four months to complete, but can the Minister explain why it has taken fully 15 months to complete, for the information not only of the House but above all for the families of those who lost their lives?

Paragraph 15 of the report states:

“Despite careful handling within service channels, the story broke in the media before all the next of kin had been informed and before ... staff had been able to contact the next of kin of the remainder of Tireless’s crew.”

Can the Minister throw light on how that happened, and explain to the House what safeguards have been agreed with the media on not reporting military fatalities before the families have been told, and whether such safeguards were flouted on this occasion?

The report concludes:

“If it had not been for the outstanding efforts of”

the third crew member, the one who was injured,

“the consequences of this incident may have been much worse”.

In the light of that, does the Minister wish to revise the statement by a Ministry of Defence source, reported on 22 March 2007 – two days after the incident – that

“the vessel was never in any danger”?

Also reported early last year, soon after the incident occurred, was the tribute paid by Commander Breckenridge, the Commanding Officer of the submarine, to the crew member who was

“injured by the initial blast and thrown to the deck ... recovered himself despite his injuries, placed an emergency breathing mask on his face and, in complete darkness and zero visibility due to the smoke, extinguished the numerous small fires in the compartment and allowed access to the fire-fighting and medical teams”.

The report reveals that owing to the buckling of the bulkhead doors, it took 44 minutes before anyone was able to get into the compartment, and the conditions in which that seaman was operating can barely be imagined.

The injured submariner who is reported to have acted so heroically has not been named in the report. I wonder why that is. Is he one of the seven submariners who have been honoured with their Commander-in-Chief’s Commendation so far? Is he to be separately honoured? If he cannot be named for security reasons, does the Minister agree that that should not prevent his bravery being appropriately rewarded?

Turning to the self-contained oxygen generators, I understand that these have been fitted in Trafalgar-class submarines since 2001. Will the Minister tell us whether they have also been fitted to the Vanguard-class submarines that carry the nuclear deterrent; if so, what is the status of such SCOGs on these particularly important vessels in the Royal Navy?

We understand that, on this occasion, the accident occurred some distance away from the nuclear reactor in the submarine, but are SCOGs fitted to other parts of the submarine that are closer to the nuclear reactor? How near was the explosion to the cruise missiles – conventionally armed cruise missiles, which are the standard main armament of Trafalgar-class submarines such as HMS Tireless, and how near to other explosive hardware carried by the submarine? Are there any other combustible products deployed on Her Majesty’s Submarines similar to SCOGs to which similarly lax procedures as described by the Minister have applied?

The report identifies

“shortcomings in the acquisition, manufacture, transport, storage, stowage and logistics management of SCOGs”.

In detail, the recommendations state that

“The existing population... should be withdrawn from service” –

the Minister has given us an update on that – but they also draw attention to the fact that

“MoD-approved quality control checks and acceptance processes”

should be

“introduced to ensure that the manufacturer supplies sodium chlorate candles that are free from contamination and physical damage.”

Will the Minister explain why those checks were not carried out previously? The report also emphasises:

“Logistics management for the SCOG replacement must ensure that guidance is clear about when the equipment is to be designated unserviceable”.

It seems inexplicable and unacceptable that no passed sell-by date was clearly applied to these combustible products – probably with fatal consequences for the two sailors.

The report states:

“Sufficient approved stowages should be identified”,

which suggests that there were not enough stowages for those dangerous products in the submarines, so I would be grateful if the Minister updated us on that point. If, as I have already alluded to, the bulkhead doors jammed shut, that is really a design fault that I would not have thought could happen in a modern nuclear-powered submarine.

Significant sections of the report have been redacted, perhaps out of consideration for the families. Is the Minister satisfied that the arrangements made for the return of the deceased to the United Kingdom were handled correctly?

Finally, I would like to say that the tributes to the two young men have shown what outstanding personalities they were. Paul McCann, from Halesowen, was a keen sportsman with an inspirational personality, who was about to leave the service to marry his American fiancée last August. Tony Huntrod from Sunderland was a live wire with great charm and a fine sense of humour. They both join the roll of more than 5,000 submariners commemorated in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers). We should all be very proud of them and very grateful to them and their families.

[The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr Bob Ainsworth): I shall try to answer as many of the hon. Gentleman’s questions as I can. The report took 15 months to complete. We have been everywhere in the effort to understand the detail of what happened. When I first approached the matter without knowing the detail, I wondered why it was taking so long and I was worried about the impact on the families. We went all the way, however, and even involved NASA – these vessels and the expertise associated with them are associated with the space programme – in order to understand all the ramifications. In the circumstances, I am sure that everyone would agree that thoroughness was more important than timeliness, although it is indeed unfortunate that these things take as long as they do.

We struggled to make contact with the families, and it took longer than it should have done. Record keeping was part of the difficulty. None the less, that does not excuse the media behaving as they did. I wish that they always honoured – they often do – our kin-informing processes. We should all encourage them to do so, not only because of the distress caused to the individuals concerned, but because of the worry caused to the whole of the rest of the fleet in this case, or to our people on operations in other cases.

On whether the vessel was in any danger, I am assured that it was not, but that does not detract from the fact that the conflagration could have been far worse had it not been for the actions of one particular individual. As I said, he was injured at the time, yet he struggled on and did a magnificent job. He has not been named because the wishes of that individual must be paramount over the views of anybody else. It is up to the individual himself how he wants to handle this.

The problem was not, contrary to what has been reported, the jamming of the bulkhead door; it was another door into the compartment that jammed and took 40-odd minutes to get open. That door has been replaced by a mesh door, which will now be rolled out throughout the fleet. The board of inquiry exposed other issues about the adequacy of the equipment on board to break into the compartment in an emergency. That is being looked at and the recommendations are being implemented.

On whether there are other combustibles, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an answer. I will look into it and come back to him as soon as I am able.

On whether the SCOGs were beyond their sell-by date, they have a 15-year life expectancy and the Navy imposes a 10-year life expectancy in order to put some redundancy into the position. These SCOGs were introduced only in 2003, so the sell-by date of the equipment is not an issue here, although I have said yes about other serious issues.

Stowage on board submarines was one of the issues flagged up. The generators for emergency use are stowed in different circumstances in different conditions and are not moved on and off submarines, so they are in good condition. As I have already said, they were all inspected. The generators used to add to the oxygen requirements, however, are routinely removed from submarines and have not been stowed on submarines where they would be safe from contamination from oil.

There were issues about the handling of the bodies which have caused great distress to the families concerned. I do not wish to go into further detail on that, although there are lessons to be learned. I have discussed the matter privately, as has the Chief of the Naval Staff, with the families.]