Royal Navy: Type 31e Frigates - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:39 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour 2:39 pm, 20th December 2018

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Berkeley for introducing this debate. I am delighted that we have noble Baronesses on the Front Bench. I thought that there might be more in the Chamber because noble Baronesses are able to launch ships, which is something that noble Lords cannot do, and of course they immediately become “ladies who launch”.

Appledore is just the tip of an iceberg because, without a full order book, I believe that other yards will go the same way. Let us look at the current UK ship orders. There are only two warships in build in the UK: HMSPrince of Wales”, which is fitting out in Rosyth and is almost complete, and HMS “Glasgow”. Two other frigates are on order and they will follow on when “Glasgow” is moved out of the yard. So, as we speak, across the United Kingdom steel work is going on on only one frigate. That is a disgrace for a maritime nation such as ours.

There is of course the plan to award a contract for five Type 31e frigates by December 2019 and a contract for the second batch of five Type 26 frigates in the early 2020s. Indeed, I had understood that one bid for the Type 31e comprised Babcock at Appledore in north Devon, Ferguson Marine on the Clyde, Harland and Wolff in Belfast, with integration at Babcock Rosyth, Fife. So, as I understand it, one of the businesses is Appledore and it is a Babcock build, so the closing of Appledore seems strange. Perhaps the Minister can confirm that the plan includes that bid.

However, these plans are just aspirations, of course, and I am afraid that I am old enough to have seen many such aspirations dashed: two landing platform helicopters reduced to one; 12 Type 45 destroyers reduced to six; 13 Type 25 frigates reduced to eight; eight Astute-class submarines reduced to seven; and so on.

There is a strategic imperative to keep a minimal shipbuilding capability in this country, but the continual loss of yards such as Appledore puts that at risk. This is clearly understood in the case of nuclear submarines, although in the early 1990s the Government almost lost the United Kingdom that capability due to a lack of orders. Similarly, I think that the Government understand the requirement for our nation to design and build complex warships. However, there need to be a sufficient loading and a steady drumbeat of orders, not least to ensure that SMEs can survive, but at present these orders do not exist. Without them, that shipbuilding capability will be lost.

We need to maximise the shipbuilding load, and the fleet solid support ships—ideally three of them, rather than two—could help that dramatically. It would also ensure the use of 90,000 tonnes of British steel, helping to maintain another strategic requirement for a nation such as the UK. However, the national shipbuilding strategy was very clear that the fleet solid support ships would be subject to international competition.

The Treasury line is that we should go to competition beyond the UK for cost reasons, but of course it does not look at the real cost to the nation of not building them here. No account is taken by the Treasury of tax paid by the shipbuilders and workers in those shipyards. It does not look at the loss of apprenticeships leading to high-skilled jobs. There is no look at the costs of retraining and unemployment in specific regions if these yards have to close, nor at the knock-on effect of a loss of jobs supported by the shipyard workers in that region, as has already been touched on by the previous two speakers. The Treasury also, strangely, seems to equate a job as a shelf-stacker in a supermarket with a high-tech skilled job in a shipyard. I am afraid that I do not see it in that way.

The national shipbuilding strategy announced that warships would be built in the United Kingdom on the basis of a competitive tender between UK shipbuilders, and that competition would help to ensure value for money and productivity, as is correct. It also said that companies could choose where to undertake the work. I cannot fault any of that but there is a hollow ring about the national shipbuilding strategy’s master plan that provides a 30-year forecast of Royal Navy shipbuilding requirements. It is far too vague and very short on specifics.

It has been stated that the strategy provides industry with greater certainty about the Royal Navy’s procurement plans—I have already talked about how these things can change quite dramatically—so that industry has the confidence to invest for the long term in its people and its assets, which is a very good thing. However, it does not do that. Where is the increase in frigate numbers promised by the Government? On what dates will they be built? Ditto the dates for the replacement amphibious ships. Why not have shortened timescales for the Type 26 programme? Where are the follow-on SSNs to take the numbers back up to the minimum requirement for eight boats? More detail is required for the small shipbuilding programmes. The demand by other government agencies, such as the Border Force, HMRC and the police, should be addressed as part of this package. The strategic position post Brexit means that we need to start building as soon as possible. Our exclusive economic zone and territorial seas are, I am afraid, wide open.

If the Government want industry to raise productivity and innovation and improve its competitiveness in the domestic and overseas markets, they must ensure a minimum shipbuilding base loading. I am afraid that at present that is not happening.