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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:45 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Burnett Lord Burnett Liberal Democrat 2:45 pm, 20th December 2018

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, who brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to these matters. I draw noble Lords’ attention to my interests as disclosed in the register, and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, on tabling this debate. He and the noble Earl, Lord Arran, have given an accurate breakdown of the predicament of Appledore. I should mention that I had the honour of representing the constituency of Torridge and West Devon in the other place for some years, and Appledore shipyard was in my constituency.

Appledore, in its present form, was founded in 1855 and has been in existence continuously since that date. It started to construct ships for the Royal Navy about 75 years ago. It is a superb shipyard, and the talent and ability, enterprise and innovation that it has shown throughout that time has always been excellent. Appledore Shipbuilders had a substantial involvement in the construction of the new aircraft carriers.

Appledore has constructed ships for a number of private clients from overseas and a number of foreign navies. The standard of ships that it has constructed is outstanding. For example, HMS “Echo”, the survey ship, was constructed and completed by Appledore shipyard in 2002, and it has been at sea almost continuously since it was launched. This is just another example of the superb workmanship of Appledore and its outstandingly capable and innovative workforce. It also constructed HMS “Enterprise” and HMS “Scott”, the other survey ships, to the same extremely high standard.

I am unable to understand the logic of Babcock’s decision to close the yard, putting 200 jobs at risk. When I was Member of Parliament for Torridge and West Devon, the workforce was in fact far greater. To close such an excellent shipyard with such an outstanding workforce is nothing short of vandalism, especially in the light of the fact that the press reported that the Ministry of Defence offered Babcock work for Appledore to the value of £60 million, and I understand that further work has been offered to Babcock by the MoD. I am anxious to find out exactly what work was offered by the MoD and why Babcock dismissed these offers as not enough to secure the long-term future of the yard. It should be added that Appledore generated revenues of £24 million in the last financial year and has recently completed the construction of four offshore patrol vessels for the Irish navy.

I appreciate that the delays in the Type 26 and Type 31e frigate programmes will mean a hiatus for shipyards across the country, including Appledore, but surely the Government must look to other opportunities to retain the expertise of this important shipyard for the benefit of not only the country but North Devon in particular. I revert therefore to the offers made by the Ministry of Defence to Babcock and repeat that I should be grateful if the Minister would spell out exactly what was offered to Babcock as an inducement to continue to keep the yard open. This House will also be anxious to know what other shipyards or contractors have been approached or have approached the Government in connection with the Ministry of Defence work or, for that matter, other work to keep Appledore open. Appledore has an enviable record of high quality in the construction of not only military but civilian and merchant ships.

The Department for International Development may well need a vessel that can be used to bring supplies, hospital facilities and other humanitarian relief. Troops from 40 Commando Royal Marines—a unit in which, many years ago, I had the honour to serve—were deployed on humanitarian operations in the Caribbean after the terrible damage caused by the hurricanes last year. The unit distinguished itself in these operations and HMS “Ocean”, the amphibious assault ship, was vital in assisting. A helicopter is invaluable for humanitarian operations.

Will the Minister confirm that there is an understanding both in the Department for International Development and in the Ministry of Defence that such a ship can be used not only by the Department for International Development for humanitarian operations but by the Ministry of Defence for combat littoral strike operations? I should like a specific reply from the Minister on this, bearing in mind that HMS “Ocean” has now been sold to the Brazilian navy.

I stress that the Ministry of Defence should complete the Modernising Defence Programme as soon as possible. Orders for the Type 26 global combat ship and the Type 31e general-purpose frigate should be brought forward for urgent operational reasons; this in turn would end the shipbuilding hiatus. The Royal Navy is in desperate need of these ships. We have large aircraft carriers that will not have anything like the escort vessels needed. Frigates are also required for many other roles, including protection of our waters and sea lines of communication. A replacement for the amphibious assault ship HMS “Ocean” has been delayed, and we are in desperate need of a landing platform helicopter ship—an LPH.

Have the Government spoken to shipbuilders and other contractors that may be interested in taking a lease when Babcock leaves the site in March 2019? The people of this country deserve to be told exactly what is happening to Royal Navy shipbuilding and capacity. The outstanding workforce at Appledore deserve the respect and support they have so palpably and emphatically earned over many years and decades.