21 March 2012
The energy minister, Charles Hendry, is preparing to waive the rules on admitting skilled foreign workers in order to keep the government’s nuclear power programme on track, according to a report today in Private Eye magazine.
Hendry made his suggestion, the latest in a series of sops to the nuclear industry, at the first meeting of a hitherto secret group called the Programme Management Board. It was set up by the nuclear industry and the government to try and prevent their plans for eight new nuclear stations from going off the rails.
The minutes of the meeting last November, and related correspondence, have been released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to the monitoring group Spinwatch in response to a request under freedom of information law.
The board was the brainchild of the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), which represents nuclear companies in the UK. It brings the French firms, EDF Energy and Areva, the US giant, Westinghouse, and other companies together with DECC and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). It also includes the Office for Nuclear Regulation, the government’s safety watchdog.
Hendry opened the meeting by stating that the government’s main objective was to get the first new nuclear station planned for Hinkley in Somerset “off the ground”. According to Private Eye, this “set the tone for his general willingness to bend over backwards.”
Hendry said the nuclear programme is “the most challenging infrastructure programme the UK is embarked upon, dwarfing any other major projects being planned.” The task was to identify the “pinch points” and plan how to overcome them, he said.
Among the “constraints” highlighted in discussion were UK skills shortages, industrial relations, the standard of imported equipment, the quality of on-site construction and the "complicated and confused provision of training". The meeting noted that “there had been a decline of capability in the UK and the UK nuclear industry has lost its international edge.”
Hendry wanted to hear from industry what action was needed to overcome the problems. He offered “to engage with the Home Office on removing barriers to overseas workers where specific skills were required.”
The minister also thought that the nuclear industry could benefit from the lessons learned preparing for the London Olympics later this year. He suggested that the new board “talk to the Olympic Delivery Authority about their experience especially of dealing with the logistics and impact on local communities of a large workforce engaged on a long-term major infrastructure project.”
The board’s creation owes much to Hendry’s desire to forge a close working relationship with Labour’s former business minister, Lord Hutton, who is now NIA chairman. In a letter to Hutton last August, Hendry added a handwritten note suggesting lunch. In another letter the following month he looked forward to meeting Hutton at Conservative Party conference.
Although DECC says neither liaison actually took place, the two men enthusiastically agreed to launch the Programme Management Board. According to Hendry, its aim was to facilitate the nuclear power programme by “removing unnecessary barriers and risk”.
The minutes and correspondence as they were released by the Department of Energy and Climate Change can be downloaded here (3MB pdf).
This article has also been posted here by Spinwatch.