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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:50 pm on 23rd May 2016.

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Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour 5:50 pm, 23rd May 2016

My Lords, the Government are unwittingly destroying our nation’s ability to design and build complex surface warships. That is particularly surprising when one considers that in the 1990s, the then Conservative Government almost did the same to our submarine-building capability. I thought that they had learned the lesson, but clearly not. From the early 1990s, year on year, the then Conservative Government delayed the order for the new Astute class—despite all our blandishments within the MoD—in theory to save money, finally putting in the order two months before the general election in 1997. Skilled men and women—engineers, designers at Barrow and the supply chains all over the country—were laid off and left to try to find other jobs. As a result, getting the submarine programme back on track was immensely expensive. We came very close to being unable to build submarines at all. Now, after 20 years of effort and huge cost, the submarine programme is back on track and able to deliver the Vanguard replacement programme.

Talking of that, Her Majesty’s most gracious Speech referred to the Government acting,

“to secure the long-term future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent”.—[Official Report, 18/56/16; col. 3.]

Well, hurrah for that, but the Commons decision to go ahead could have been made last year. The decision was postponed and Trident was instead relegated to becoming a political football. We should ensure that the Commons decision to replace our submarines is made this summer. It is crucial to put this whole argument beyond question, and an early vote would clear the air. Does the Minister agree?

The Government are doing exactly the same with the new frigate programme as they did with the submarine programme in the 1990s. I have spoken constantly and, some noble Lords will probably feel, at great length, about our lack of destroyers and frigates. For a great maritime nation, it is a national disgrace. Thirty-four years ago yesterday, the ship that I commanded was sunk in the Falklands. In that conflict, two destroyers, two frigates and 14 escorts were damaged. That is more than the number of destroyers and frigates we have today. Quite simply, we do not have enough and one need only look at the lacklustre responses to my many questions on the subject to realise that the Government know that to be the case. Why have we delayed and delayed the order for our new Type 26 frigates and reduced the number promised? The plan in SDSR 2010 was for 13 to replace the 13 Type 23s, the first to be in service in 2020. In SDSR 2015, the number was reduced to eight, with hoped-for entry in 2023. There was a sweetener—a new class of light frigates would be ordered, but after 50 years in the Navy, I say, let us not delude ourselves: they are on the drawing board and in my experience, there is many a slip twixt cup and lip.

Still, the Type 26s have not been ordered. Why not? Every delay adds to their cost, so when will they be ordered? What is now the planned date when the first will be in service in the RN? When will the last one be delivered? How old will the Type 23 that it is replacing be by then? What is the drum beat of ship orders to ensure the survivability and stability of British shipyards?

I hope to get some clear answers. The series of questions that I have asked trying to establish what, if any, extra money has gone to First Sea Lord’s maritime fighting environment has been given very confusing answers. The reality is that despite much trumpeting about how much extra money there is for defence, the MoD is suffering from a near-term cash crisis, as a number of us on both sides of the House predicted at the time of SDSR 2015. Effectively, there is a £1 billion shortfall in the First Sea Lord’s budget. So the Type 26 programme has been cut and has slipped. Does this remind noble Lords of something? Yes, the submarine debacle of the 1990s.

The delays to the Type 26 programme will come back to haunt us and cost us dear, but more significantly, they are in danger of destroying our complex surface warship-building industry. Without those orders, another major area of British engineering and skill will disappear—we can think of steel and all sorts of things. Sir John Parker’s study is not the answer to this, although I am glad that he is doing the study. The answer is warship orders.

The Battle of Jutland was fought 100 years ago this month. It was a strategic victory because we had out-built the Germans in the number of dreadnought battleships. Today, we cannot even build a frigate, and our nation needs maritime power. The first paragraph of the Queen’s Speech says that the Government will “strengthen national defences”. Again, hurrah for that. That is a great victory for many of us in this Chamber who pointed out that in the last two Queen’s Speeches, defence seemed a real afterthought. Let us put our money where our mouth is. After some pushing, the noble Earl has already admitted in a Written Answer that, far from having more ships in the Navy in 2030, as promised by the Prime Minister in 2015, we will actually have fewer.

We have a choice: to take defence seriously or not. I believe that we must, whether in or out of the EU and, according to the gracious Speech, so do the Government—hurrah. An order of frigates, leading to a steady drum beat of one built per year, will lead to the 30-escort Navy identified as required in much defence policy work, preserve a crucial national capability, reduce costs and lead to export opportunities.

Our great nation is standing into danger. Soft power without hard power to support it is as nothing.