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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:52 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative 2:52 pm, 20th December 2018

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for introducing this Question for Short Debate. I agree with what he and all other noble Lords have said about the background to the yard, and I will not repeat all the arguments. We should not forget that the Appledore yard, under Babcock’s stewardship, successfully tendered for and built the Irish offshore patrol vessels against competition —I am quite sure that German yards would have tried very hard to get that order, yet Appledore still managed to secure it. It is an interesting point on labour relations that they built the last one without any difficulty.

I declare an interest as patron of the Steamship Freshspring Society, and Appledore has been very helpful to us. The steamship “Freshspring” is berthed at Bideford. Obviously it is advantageous to have a shipyard nearby, but any major works needed on the “Freshspring” would have to be commercially tendered for.

I imagine the Minister will tell us that there will be very limited direct employment consequences because—as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and others have told us—the employees at the Appledore shipyard will be bussed to the Plymouth yard. I understand that quite a lot of them come from some distance away.

In the absence of strategic considerations, I do not wear rose-tinted spectacles and want to preserve all possible heavy industry—that is not where the money is. A lot of this work can be done much more economically overseas, which is why we have seen solid support ships built overseas. However, there are strategic considerations. Very few yards in the United Kingdom can build a complete warship, and Appledore is one. It has a large dry dock with overhead cranes and is covered from the elements so can work 24 hours if necessary. We simply cannot afford to lose this capacity.

It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that we will never be in a serious war or existential conflict. But recall the Falklands conflict, when the “Canberra” mysteriously received a new helicopter landing pad in a few days. That was a sudden, unexpected demand on the shipbuilding industry, but at the time we had the capacity to do it. Could we do it now? In my view, it is a strategic necessity to keep the Appledore yard available, even if we do not have work for it immediately.

A lot of skills, knowledge and experience are involved in shipbuilding. One only needs to think about the problems experienced on the Tyne. When we tried to build Bay-class ships there, it suddenly became very expensive because people had forgotten how to do it. The noble Lord, Lord West, touched on the problems with the Astute-class submarine, when people at Barrow-in-Furness had lost the skills to do the job.

I have outlined the fixed facilities at the yard, but an important consideration is what is called the movable plant. If it were dispersed, say in an auction, it would be much more difficult to recommence production at the yard. Will my noble friend the Minister do everything she can to encourage Babcock plc, which, I understand, owns the movable plant, to pass on the plant on reasonable terms to any viable future operator?

Finding new work for the yard will be challenging, as I am sure all noble Lords agree. Unfortunately, Babcock—for what may be perfectly good business reasons—only pursued military work. The problem is that, realistically, it is unlikely that any new awards will arrive in the next 12 months. The Government must therefore take action to preserve the capacity at the Appledore shipyard.