Fleet Solid Support Ships

– in the House of Commons at 11:00 am on 18th November 2022.

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Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Shadow Minister (Defence) 11:00 am, 18th November 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on fleet solid support ships.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. On 16 November my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced that Team Resolute—consisting of Harland & Wolff, BMT and Navantia UK—has been appointed as the preferred bidder in the competition to build the fleet solid support ships. Having appointed Team Resolute as the preferred bidder, the Ministry of Defence expects to award it a contract around the end of this year. That appointment follows on from the award to BAE Systems in Glasgow of the £4 billion contract for five Type 26 frigates earlier this week. Both are excellent news for UK shipyards and the shipbuilding skills base in our country.

Those crucial vessels will provide munitions, stores and provisions to the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates deployed at sea. Ammunition and essential stores will ensure that the mission can be sustained anywhere around the world. The contract will deliver more than 1,000 additional UK shipyard jobs, generate hundreds of graduate and apprentice opportunities across the UK, and a significant number of further jobs throughout the supply-chain. Team Resolute has also pledged to invest £77 million in shipyard infrastructure to support the UK shipbuilding sector.

The entire final assembly will be completed at Harland & Wolff’s shipyard in Belfast to Bath-based BMT’s British design. The awarding of the contract will see jobs created and work delivered in Appledore, Devon, Harland & Wolff Belfast, and within the supply chain up and down the country. This announcement is good news for the UK shipbuilding industry. It will strengthen and secure the UK shipbuilding enterprise as set out in the national shipbuilding strategy, and I commend this decision to the House.

Photo of Chris Evans Chris Evans Shadow Minister (Defence)

The awarding of this contract raises one fundamental question: are the Government on the side of British workers? When the Secretary of State for Defence designated these ships as warships in 2020, he said:

“The Fleet Solid Support warships competition will be the genesis of a great UK shipbuilding industry”.

However, he then seemed to cool on the idea. When speaking in front of the Defence Committee in July, he stated that ships will only be constructed and integrated in the UK, and two weeks ago at Defence questions he said that he would

“not cut corners for party political ideology”.—[Official Report, 7 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 13.]

This is not about party politics; this is about creating British jobs for British workers, with British ships using British steel.

Ministry of Defence spin doctors were quick to get to work on the press release, claiming that this bid will create 2,000 jobs in UK shipyards and in the supply chain. However, research by the GMB and Team UK’s contract bid shows that if these ships were built in the UK rather than in Spanish shipyards, it would mean more than 6,000 UK jobs. The Government have created a new Spanish armada more than 430 years since the last one lost. It is also highly unusual for warships to be built abroad, due to security implications. Earlier this week, the Government announced that the new Type 26 warships will be built in the UK, yet the fleet solid support ships will not be. Why has a different decision been made, and how will security and economic concerns be managed?

Before we hear calls from the Government Benches of “What would Labour do?”—well, we would build British by default. Our approach has broad support. The Defence Committee has said that Ministers should

“ensure that warships are built in UK yards and that this designation continues to include the Fleet Solid Support ship contract”.

The Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions has argued that building and maintaining fleet solid support ships in the UK was strategically important, but how much of those ships will be built in Spain and not the UK? Will Ministers continue to use UK steel to build those ships? British workers have the right to know whether their Government are on their side. Based on their words and deeds, the answer is a resounding no.

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman but, with great respect, what a load of nonsense. He started by saying that the Labour party would be on the side of British jobs for British workers, and that is exactly what the contract delivers. There will be 1,200 jobs—not any old jobs but fantastic new jobs—in our shipbuilding sector. The Government are already investing in Type 26, and we are seeing full order books in Scottish yards. This will mean additional jobs in Harland & Wolff. It is worth focusing on what Harland & Wolff had to say. Its chief executive said:

“I am pleased to see UK Government seize the last opportunity to capture the skills that remain in Belfast and Appledore before they are lost for good”.

The contract is about ensuring that there is strength and depth in shipyards across our country.

The hon. Gentleman went on to make points about how some components will be built overseas, but in modern engineering designs ’twas ever thus. Take, for example, the F-35—a highly sophisticated bit of equipment built in the United States. Where is much of the equipment designed and manufactured? Here in the United Kingdom. That is exactly what we do. Do the Americans think that, somehow, because of its British components, it is some latter-day invasion on the lines of the Spanish armada, as he referred to? Of course not. That would be complete nonsense. This is fantastic investment that, by the way, also ensures an additional £77 million invested in Harland & Wolff. That is supporting British jobs, British know-how and a pipeline of British expertise that will sustain our shipbuilding industry into the future.

Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

I declare an interest as an active officer of the all-party parliamentary group for the Celtic sea. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is important for these jobs to be spread around the whole country and that, in particular, Appledore in the south-west is important strategically for the project, given that we need to upgrade some of the ports in the south-west to ensure that we can provide proper maintenance and support to the floating offshore wind sector once that gets under way?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. If we are to have shipbuilding not just now but in the future, it must be sustainable, it must have the skills and it must have the strength and depth. By investing in yards such as Appledore, we do not put all our eggs in one basket; we grow the pie, as someone once said, and ensure that there is greater capacity. That will be good for jobs in the south-west and good for UK plc as a whole.

Photo of Mick Whitley Mick Whitley Labour, Birkenhead

The union Prospect has warned that, as a result of this decision, as much as 80% of the work on these vessels could be offshored to Spain. This is a devastating blow to British shipyards and will compound the anxiety felt by workers at Cammell Laird in my constituency following last week’s announcement that, as a result of procurement laws imposed by Whitehall, much of the work on the new Mersey ferries will take place in Romania. It is time that the Government began to back British business. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister now commit to implementing Sir John Parker’s recommendation that all Defence-funded vessels should be open to UK-only competition and speak to Cabinet colleagues about the need for a broader overall procurement law so that, at last, we can begin to build in Britain by default?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

These are British ships built to British designs in a British dockyard. I am pleased to be able to make that absolutely clear. The contract is essential to ensure not just that there are British jobs but, critically, that there is the best know-how—wherever in the world it comes from—so that our yards are equipped with the expertise, skills and talent they need to sustain these ships and ships into the future.

Photo of Robbie Moore Robbie Moore Conservative, Keighley

We have world-class shipbuilding capabilities across the UK, so does my hon. and learned Friend agree that building our three fleet solid support ships in Belfast with £77 million of investment will boost jobs in Northern Ireland, demonstrating our Government’s commitment to spreading opportunity and jobs throughout the entire UK?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

Brilliantly put; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. It spreads the jobs and spreads the know-how but sustains our capability. One of the exciting things that I have discovered since starting this job is that not only is there a pipeline of warship orders, but the overall strength of our sector is on the up. This contract brings additional jobs, additional resources and additional prospects to this important British industry.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood

The Minister must understand the importance of sovereign capability when it comes to defence, so can he confirm what percentage of the supply chain for the fleet solid support ships is expected to be UK-based? Can he tell us whether he has required contractual guarantees on that percentage?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the importance of ensuring sovereign capability. That is why I am so proud that Scottish yards, and indeed other yards, have full order books of British Royal Navy warships that are to be built to increase sovereign capability. She asks about supplies. What I can tell her is that 800 British jobs are directly supported in the supply chain. That, overall, is good news for British business, British manufacturers and British jobs.

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston Conservative, Wantage

I welcome my hon. and learned Friend’s statement about the jobs that will be created. Clearly, this is an important industry not just for now but for the future. To that end, is he able to comment at this stage on the opportunities that might be provided for young people to do apprenticeships and so on, so they can be the next generation of shipbuilders?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I am so glad my hon. Friend raised that point, because that is exactly what I was discussing just this week when I was in Devonport. I do not know about him, but when he and I were a little bit younger, a lot of people felt that, at the age of 16 or 18, they either went into the workplace or they decided to go to university. What is so exciting now is that there are opportunities for people to get apprenticeships, whether degree-level or others. The companies supporting some of those apprenticeships are those involved in advanced engineering, precisely the sorts of businesses that will be supported by this excellent announcement today.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton

As my hon. Friend Chris Evans said, the Defence Committee is very clear that British ships should be built in British yards. As I understand it, this consortium is led by the Spanish. Will he confirm whether it is the case that they are ultimately responsible for the contract, and how can he square that with what the Conservative party has told us for many years, which is that leaving Europe would ensure that British ships would be built in this country?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

It is perfectly true that there is an international collaboration, but I gently point out that that is not unusual and nor is it unwelcome. In any modern sophisticated piece of engineering, whether Typhoon or F-35, there will be an international component. If all nations produced everything themselves, that would become incredibly expensive and would defeat the object. Through international collaboration, which by the way we are proud of, we will produce something world-class and meet the needs of the taxpayer as well as the needs of our armed forces, and—I have not emphasised it enough before, so I must do so now—critically, a world-class shipbuilder will bring a lot of its technical know-how into Harland & Wolff, allowing it to build excellent ships long into the future.

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich

I do find some of the anger from the Opposition Benches ever so slightly confected. It is also quite unusual for good news to be brought to the attention of the House by the Opposition. However, in terms of quality, will the Minister guarantee that the key consideration here is ensuring that the Royal Navy continues to be a gem and one of the reasons why we are so proud of our armed forces?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

My hon. Friend made an excellent point at the beginning, because never was such good news more surprisingly UQ’d. This is excellent news for the United Kingdom and I am grateful to Chris Evans—who is very kind and courteous in his dealings with me, for which I am grateful—for having done so. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Royal Navy is critical to the safety and security of this island nation. I was at Devonport earlier this week to see the work of an amazing crew on HMS Portland. To see the determination, commitment to the mission and sense of duty from those sailors and their captain was hugely inspirational. It is important for them to have confidence in their mission. We have confidence in them. That is important for the security of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

As both a newspaper and radio reporter, I had the privilege of seeing British-built ships launched on both Clydeside and Teesside. It was exciting and I admit it really engendered pride in being British, but can the Minister tell me why the Government appear to have so little pride and confidence in the UK shipbuilding industry and are prepared to turn their collective backs on British workers? Can he confirm how many jobs will be created or protected abroad, rather than at home?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The hon. Member is right: it is a matter of pride to see a British ship going into the water. However, I say respectfully that characterising things in the way that he does is a great mistake. I am happy to make it clear that the overwhelming majority of the jobs will be here in the UK. However, just as it would be absurd for the United States to say, “We will not have any British involvement in the production of the F-35”, it would be absurd for us to say that we will turn our face against some of the best expertise in the world. That would also be counterproductive, because we would be setting our face against the technological know-how that will secure British jobs in the future. I am pleased to say that this decision does two things: first, it secures British jobs; secondly, it secures the British know-how that we need for a thriving and prosperous shipbuilding industry in the future. I hope that the hon. Member will therefore, in the fullness of time, enjoy the pride of seeing many more ships go into the water.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

In responding to the urgent question, the Minister seems to have left out a number of important details. Will he confirm whether the prime contractor for the fleet solid support ships will be the Spanish state-owned company Navantia, or will it be a British company?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I invite the hon. Member to look at the things that really matter—that is, the jobs that will come into British yards. Since we set out the national shipbuilding strategy, which was refreshed earlier this year, we have ensured that, for the first time in decades, there is a lasting pipeline for all Government-procured ships, whether for defence or elsewhere. That is important because the stability ensures that there can be investment.

On the hon. Member’s specific point, there is, of course, a role for Navantia UK—there is no secret about that—just as there is a role for BAE Systems and all sorts of other industries in other badged weapons systems. That does not mean, however, that there is any reduced benefit for British workers. On the contrary, there is £77 million of investment. I respectfully say to him that the question that he has to answer is: would he set his face against a deal that would mean £77 million-worth of investment in a British yard, which, by the way, desperately needs it? Without that investment, who knows what the future would be for Harland & Wolff? With that investment, we can be sure that it is bright, and he should welcome that.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy)

Of course, if the whole contract was coming to UK yards, the investment would be more than £77 million. Now that the Minister has confirmed that the consortium is indeed Spanish-led, I remind him that no other G7 country offshores its warship production. Will he tell us how many jobs are going to Spain that would have come to this country as a result of this reckless decision by his Government?

Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I say respectfully that that is an absurd mischaracterisation. I am pleased that the overwhelming majority are coming here. By the way, jobs are also included for the people who designed this—BMT in Bath—which the hon. Member should welcome. The majority of the manufacturing is coming here. This decision also means that we will have the know-how to ensure that we have the pipeline to the future. If he wants to say that there are some jobs in Spain, that is perfectly true, but the overwhelming majority are here. Some of the Typhoons, for example, are assembled in Italy, so does he resent the fact that there are British jobs making some of the components? Of course he does not, because that is the modern world in which we live. Crucially, that modern world ensures that, as opposed to having some sort of prehistoric, antediluvian approach, we have strength for the United Kingdom, strength for the British armed forces and strength for British industry.