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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:57 pm on 20th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Touhig Lord Touhig Labour 2:57 pm, 20th December 2018

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Berkeley for securing this debate. It has been a good debate, albeit a short one, on a matter very important to our defence and economic interests. I appreciate that I am stating the obvious: we are an island—not a very big island—but we are also the world’s fifth-largest economy, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a nuclear power and a major player in NATO. Protecting the seas around our island and keeping open the world’s shipping lanes for trade is essential to our very economic existence. To do that, we need a modern, well-equipped Navy crewed by highly trained and motivated personnel.

Alas, this Government have presided over the biggest reduction of our naval capabilities in our country’s history. As my noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton said yesterday, the Navy now has fewer vessels than in 2003. Time and again, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, has had the unenviable task of coming to this House with the thinnest of arguments in support of the Government. It is only because of the high regard and respect for the noble Earl across the House that he has succeeded to some extent in assuaging the tide of criticism from all sides.

But on Tuesday night, when the noble Earl repeated a Statement on the Modernising Defence Programme, not a single Member from the Government’s party on the Benches behind spoke in support or even asked a question. To call it a Statement is something of an exaggeration. Patrick Kidd in the Times said that the Defence Secretary had “weaponised jargon”. My right honourable friend Kevan Jones said in the other place:

“If military strength was based on management-speak and general waffle, the Secretary of State’s statement would make us a world-beater”.—[Official Report, Commons, 18/12/18; col. 662.]

My noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe summed it up well with just four words when he said:

“It is essentially a classic ‘We will try harder’ Statement”.—[Official Report, 18/12/18; col. 1774.]

When the Government suspended the competition for the Type 31e in July, there was suspicion that the MoD had not received enough competitive bids. The process was restarted in August and on 26 November, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, told the House that the Government were committed to maintaining a fleet of 19 frigates and destroyers and that there would be a competition for building the Type 31e worth £1.25 billion.

Earlier this month the Government announced that they had awarded the contracts for the competitive design phase. Stuart Andrew, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement set out in detail the plan for a competition to build five Type 31e frigates. The MoD awarded three contracts for the competitive design. The contracts have been awarded to a consortium led by BAE Systems, Babcock and Atlas Elektronik UK and are valued at up to £5 million each.

However, a major concern is the affordability of the ships. The cost has been capped at £250 million each, which many industry experts worry is not feasible. Can the Minister say something to assuage our concerns on this matter? Can she share with the House details of how the Government have arrived at this £250 million figure? If she is not able to do so today, will she write to us?

Having said that, it is only right to state that we on these Benches are pleased that the process has been restarted. Indeed, we greatly welcome it. We believe it imperative that the MoD ensures that the programme proceeds to the planned timescale so that the ships can enter service as replacements for some of the Type 23 frigates. Can the Minister say something more about this? Can she confirm that the Government will give regular updates to Parliament on the progress? Are the Government completely confident that the timetable for the construction will ensure there is no time lag between the decommissioning of any Type 23 frigate and the entering into service of the Type 31e?

Will the Government undertake to keep Parliament updated regularly on the cost of the new frigates? Can she say what monitoring mechanisms will be put in place to ensure there are no cost overruns? This reassurance is necessary because, unfortunately, this Government have a very poor record on keeping within budgets. Indeed, the affordability gap in the defence equipment plan is now estimated to be somewhere between £7 billion and £15 billion.

Finally, I support the comments of my noble friend Lord Berkeley, and others, about the Appledore shipyard. Ships have been built there for 163 years, including, as my noble friend said, sections for the two new aircraft carriers. Some of the skills and trades at Appledore may not be found elsewhere in the United Kingdom. These are skills we can ill afford to lose, and I hope the Minister will have something positive to say when she replies.