National Shipbuilding Strategy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:42 pm on 10th March 2022.

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Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Shadow Minister (Defence) 12:42 pm, 10th March 2022

After months of delay, I am pleased that the Minister has come before the House with a shipbuilding strategy.

Now, we all know that the Prime Minister loves a photo opportunity or two, so I am sure that he will enjoy his trip to Merseyside today when he can dress up in his favourite fluorescent jacket and his little hard hat and make his historical analogies to Britain’s proud shipbuilding past. Perhaps while he is there, he would like to explain why the Ministry of Defence has given a £10 million contract this week to a Dutch yard for a vessel that could have been built right here in Britain.

Despite the Prime Minister’s jingoism and nostalgia, the reality is this: the Royal Navy has only 13 frigates and six destroyers. Our Royal Navy is being asked to take on increasing responsibilities, but one in five ships has disappeared from our surface fleet since 2010. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Defence Committee has concluded that the Navy cannot fulfil the full ambition of the integrated review with its current fleet. Our Navy needs more ships, but it is also vital that we ensure that they are built right here in Britain. Our shipyards are crying out for an end to the feast-and-famine cycle of procurement, yet, despite the 30-year pipeline, there is no commitment to ensure that ships are built in UK yards.

Our steel industry and shipyards are national assets, which is why Labour has called for a “British built by default” approach to defence procurement. The GMB has said that Ministers are

“again sowing uncertainty with their disastrous policy refusing to guarantee work for UK yards…No other shipbuilding nation would dream of procuring its own vessels in this way.”

I must ask the Minister this: why does the strategy not promise a “British built by default” approach to defence procurement? Why does the strategy not include targets for UK steel in UK ships? Without either, how can the Minister ensure investment in his stated ambition of local jobs invested in our communities?

The strategy also fails to tackle the deep-seated problems of MOD mismanagement and delivery. The National Audit Office currently rates no major shipbuilding programmes as being on time or on budget, and it is only getting worse. The number of MOD projects rated “amber/red” has doubled and fleet solid support ships have moved from amber to “amber/red” in the past year. Why has the strategy been published without a clear timeline for delivery? How will the £5 billion cover the cost of 150 ships, and is this even new money?

At a time of increasing threats, it is not the time for vanity projects, but the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, continue to push ahead with a new royal yacht. The Defence Committee had stated that it has

“received no evidence of the advantage to the Royal Navy” in acquiring it. Does the Minister still think that this is the best way to spend MOD money?

Chasing headlines and photo opportunities on shipbuilding is one thing, delivery, value for money and investment in Britain are quite another. Unfortunately, this strategy fails on all those counts.