Atomic Weapons Establishment transfer to public ownership dubbed ‘complete shambles’

Union says return of operation back into public management has 'undermined relationship' with specialised workforce
Defence secretary Ben Wallace Credit: PA

By Jim Dunton

05 Jul 2021

One of the civil service’s main unions has criticised the government’s handling of the return to public management of the Atomic Weapons Establishment, which took effect at that start of this month.

Prospect said the process of turning the AWE into an arm’s-length body overseen by the Ministry of Defence had been dealt with in an “amateurish way” that jeopardised relations between the organisation and staff.

Senior deputy general secretary Sue Fearns said AWE had “completely failed” to engage properly with its workforce in preparing for the transition in the months since the plans were confirmed.

“The transfer of the Atomic Weapons Establishment back into public ownership has been a shambles from start to finish,” she said.

“The failure to engage with staff and their representatives risks seriously undermining the relationship between the organisation and its highly specialised workforce.”

Fearns said it was “deeply regrettable” that issues remained unresolved as the transfer completed.

“This is an incredibly important national facility, and it is extremely worrying that this process has been handled so poorly and with ministers apparently completely disengaged.

AWE is based in Aldermaston, Berkshire,  and manufactures, maintains and develops the warheads for Trident missiles. Former Cabinet Office perm sec Sir John Manzoni became chairman of AWE’s board of directors on 1 July, the day its new arm’s-length body status came into effect.

The organisation’s operations were contracted out to the Hunting-BRAE consortium through a government-owned, contractor-operated agreement in 1993. AWE Management Ltd was awarded a 25-year contract to run the operation in 1999. That consortium brought together Lockheed Martin, Serco and Jacobs Engineering.

However, in November last year defence secretary Ben Wallace confirmed that the government was triggering a break clause in the  25-year deal and would turn AWE into an arm’s-length body wholly owned by the MoD.

In a written ministerial statement, Wallace said the change in operating model would enhance the MoD’s “agility in the future management of the UK’s nuclear deterrent” and represent value for money for taxpayers.

“The decision was taken in order to simplify and further strengthen the relationship between the MoD and AWE plc, enhancing the MoD’s ability to invest in the development of the workforce, technology and infrastructure, and therefore in the future of AWE plc,” he said.

Responding to Prospect’s comments, AWE said in a statement: “AWE plc has engaged actively and collaboratively with MoD, UKGI, trade union representatives and our employees since the government’s announcement last November that AWE plc would become a non-departmental public body, wholly owned by the MOD from 1 July 2021.

“We are committed to open and active dialogue with our trade union representatives and our employees as we continue to work through the transition process.”

This story was updated at 12:00 pm on 5 July 2021 to include a response from AWE

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