Opposition Day — [3rd Allotted Day]
Penny Mordaunt (Portsmouth North, Conservative)
I draw the House’s attention to my registered interest with the Royal Navy reserve.
I have mixed views about today’s debate. I am always glad when defence is discussed on the Floor of the House, but it is very important that we build a consensus between all parties on these important issues. When the Defence Committee requests time in this Chamber, it is always keen to have a motion that will not divide the House, and I have always tried to adopt that non-partisan attitude in events and campaigns that I have run for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines—for example, in asking the shadow Secretary of State to co-host last year’s Trafalgar day event with me.
I therefore approach an Opposition day debate on defence with a heavy heart, but today I have a doubly heavy heart because I have to correct a falsehood that has been running for the past few days, perpetuated by Labour’s spin operation. I do not believe that the shadow Secretary of State or his shadow Ministers would have been involved in this, but I hope that in winding up they will take the time to correct it.
Portsmouth dockyard is the home of the surface fleet. It has a wonderful natural harbour, which is being dredged to house the new carriers. New power facilities are being built, and moves are afoot to put the vacant historic dockyard to new use so that it ceases to be a drain on the defence budget. The operational stress that the carriers will be under will be considerable, so repair and support services must sit alongside the ships in their home port. There is much activity, much investment and more work for the dockyard’s partners and suppliers, most notably Rolls-Royce in my constituency.
In the face of all that activity and progress, Labour has spent the past few days telling those who work in the dockyard and their families that it will close. It has not been discussing the BAE review; it has been telling people that the Royal Navy base is toast. That is a new low. Government Members have come to expect Labour policy and its lines to take to be divorced from reality, especially where the economy is concerned, but I had thought, perhaps naively, that defence might warrant a more grown-up attitude. This sort of distortion is indefensible not just because of the unnecessary hurt and worry that is caused to people in my constituency, but because of the damage that it causes to British businesses.
We have to retain a shipbuilding capability in the UK—it is a sovereign capability. To afford the Royal Navy ships of the future, we need a slower drumbeat in
our yards in building those ships. We therefore need to export more Royal Navy-designed ships. We also need to make better use of the gaps in work in our yards, rather than put the brakes on contracts, especially those that will deliver much-needed and much-missed capability, such as carrier strike force.
There is a gap between the carrier work finishing and the building of the new Type 26 combat ship starting. Rather than making the mistakes of the last Government and paying for the work to be delivered slower, we should use that time and money to do something more useful, using designs that we already have. We should build ocean patrol vessels and perhaps an ice ship, which would certainly be of use. That would be a better use of public funds, retain the capability and provide more options either to carry out operations or to generate funds for the Department. We must have no let-up in the Government activity to hook in any buyer who is looking to purchase a combat ship. I know that Ministers are considering all those options.
These are important issues, but on them, Labour is silent. It does not seem to be remotely interested in ensuring that the Government do the right thing, that we have the capability that we need or that we are getting value for money. Nor has it stated what its view is on the future of shipbuilding in the UK. Instead, over the past few days Labour’s press office has misled people in my constituency by saying that the Navy base will close. The Government could not have been clearer in their statement that all three Navy bases will be retained. The shadow ministerial team know that. I therefore hope that whichever shadow Minister responds to the debate will tell us what they think about shipbuilding in the UK. At the very least, they should state that they know that the Government are committed to the three Royal Navy bases.
The shadow Ministers should reflect on the actions of their party over the past few days. If Labour wants to have a debate about the BAE Systems review, that is fine. I will show up. In the meantime, I ask that it treats my constituents working in and with the armed forces with a greater degree of respect.