HC Deb 24 February 1999 vol 326 cc300-1W
Mrs. McKenna

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is the outcome of his review of the possible employment of women in submarines and in mine clearance diving. [73578]

Mr. Doug Henderson

We are committed to equality of opportunity in the Armed Forces. In the course of the Strategic Defence Review we examined the opportunities for maximising opportunity for women in each of the Services provided that this would not damage combat effectiveness. The results of this work were set out in the report on the Strategic Defence Review (Cmd 2999), in which we also announced our intention to review the exclusion of women from service in submarines and Royal Navy mine clearance.

We have now completed our review of these matters and concluded that we should maintain our policy of excluding women from service in submarines and mine clearance diving for medical reasons.

In reaching this conclusion I considered all the evidence very carefully and looked hard for options which might enable us to open service in submarines to women despite the medical risks involved. I was not able, however, to put to one side the MOD's statutory duty of care under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974.

All RN submarines currently in service may remain submerged for up to 90 days for operational reasons. In the course of such deployments, contaminants build up in the internal atmosphere. Although there is careful control of the materials allowed aboard and atmospheric filtration, the build up of contaminants such as carbon dioxide in this closed environment cannot be prevented. Such an atmosphere is not harmful to adults, but medical studies by the Institute of Naval Medicine show that for some contaminants the levels exceed those considered safe to the foetus of a pregnant woman, and therefore also place the woman's health at risk. In other cases there is insufficient data available to recommend with confidence maximum exposure limits which would prevent harm to the foetus and the woman.

A woman, in at least the first days after conception, may not be aware that she is pregnant. If she were serving in a submarine there is, therefore, the small possibility that she might unknowingly expose here unborn child to levels on contamination above those considered safe. Even if some women were prepared to accept the risks and volunteer to serve in submarines the MOD could not compromise its duty of care by allowing them to do so.

In the specialised area of mine clearance diving, (where there are far fewer posts involved), there are also substantial medical risks to an unborn child and, therefore, the mother, caused in this case by the very high pressures to which these divers are subjected. As far as women who are not pregnant are concerned, the medical risks are less well understood, but there may be a risk to a woman during menstruation. I have accepted the medical advice that women should, therefore, be excluded from working as Mine Clearance Divers at least until more definitive medical advice is available.

The Government and the Armed Forces are determined that the widest possible employment opportunities should be available to women in the Armed Forces. The position on service in submarines and mine diving clearance will, therefore, be kept under review.