-- [Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]
-- Douglas Chapman (Dunfermline and West Fife) (SNP)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the National Shipbuilding Strategy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I stand before you with the sense that we have been here before, and indeed we have. It is déjà vu on a grand scale, because at Defence questions, during Westminster Hall debates, in answers to urgent questions and in ministerial statements, the Government have had the chance to put at rest the minds of the various parties interested in the shipbuilding strategy. Yet again, we find ourselves hoping that the Minister will give us something more than the usual scorn that is reserved for SNP Members.
Any time I tire of waiting for answers, I simply remind myself that many people have been waiting much longer, whether they be the men and women who serve us in the Royal Navy or those in the yards on the Clyde and at Rosyth. That is not to mention the average taxpayer, who demands nothing more from the Government than that their money is well spent on equipment that actually works and the assurance that the Government are doing their utmost to fulfil their most basic duty—defending our homeland.
In 2021, it will be two decades since HMS St Albans slipped from Yarrows on the Clyde and became the last-of-class Type 23 frigate, meaning that the state that has always prided itself on being a maritime power will not have built a single frigate for the best part of 20 years. Furthermore, as the first-of-class Type 23, HMS Norfolk, left that same shipyard in 1990, it found that the mission for which it had been specifically designed had all but ended. It is quite incredible that in 2017, we are still unable to see a signed contract to begin the replacement of the Type 23s, which are a cold war platform. No one I have spoken to through my work on the Select Committee on Defence, whether fellow members, academics, shipbuilders, trade unionists or even civil servants, sees that as an acceptable way forward, yet here we are.
Its cold-war mission may have ended, but the Type 23 has certainly done all that was asked of it, and more. Let us not forget that the range of tasks the Royal Navy has undertaken in the post-cold war era has dramatically increased, yet paradoxically, as the senior service’s task list is increasing, the number of frigates and destroyers available to it has sunk to an historic low. It is that paradox that I hope the Minister will help me with today. The Ministry of Defence has long been able to exploit the convoluted and confusing history of the Type 26s and Type 31s to hide from its failings. I will make it easy for the Government by posing three straightforward questions that I hope they will take in good faith and respond to appropriately.
First, and most simply, when will we see the national shipbuilding strategy? Secondly, the MOD has made much of 2017 being the year of the Navy, but 2023 is a much more appropriate choice, as that is when the MOD completes the purchase of 24 F-35B planes to fly from the carriers, and when HMS Queen Elizabeth becomes fully operational. Will the Minister reassure us that the Royal Navy will be able to form a fully functioning carrier group with Type 26s, Type 45s and the requisite Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service ships? Thirdly, on a related note, various media outlets have reported in recent days on the bandwidth problems in the procurement budget, which were highlighted in a National Audit Office report. So far as the equipment plan is concerned, how will the shipbuilding strategy ensure that surface naval ships are prioritised in procurement decisions?
When the Government committed to the national shipbuilding strategy as part of the 2015 strategic defence and security review, many of us thought we were reaching the end of a long journey, with respect to the modernisation of the Royal Navy. How wrong we were. Early studies of what in 1994 was called the “future surface combatant” certainly thought outside the box. A whole range of options were considered, including a radical trimaran hull design. After a decade, the FSC had become the “sustained surface combatant capability”, which had as many as three designs. It was not a concept that would survive the financial crash. Indeed, by 2009, it was possible for my friend, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who chairs the Defence Committee, to call for a future surface combatant that was as “cheap as chips”. How did we get from as “cheap as chips” to building £1-billion frigates in less than a decade?
I contend that the blame lies squarely at the door of the MOD. One thing has become clear from the numerous conversations I have had with both management and unions at BAE Systems: it is a global company with a world-class workforce that is able to turn its hand to whatever design and specification is provided by the MOD. Up to this point, it has done that. Quite simply, the MOD’s unerring ability to change horses midstream has added to the cost, timescales and uncertainty of the ongoing naval procurement programme.
That continued after the shipbuilding strategy announcement in 2015. The initial reassurances we were given were replaced with disquiet last spring, when no contract for the Type 26s was signed. When The Guardian broke the story in April about potential job losses at the Clyde yards, there was a crushing realisation that, yes, it had happened again. Any hope that a refreshed team in the main building over the summer would lead to clarity on the Type 26 or the shipbuilding strategy did not last long. When the Minister repeatedly assured us in the Chamber that we would see a strategy by the autumn statement, we knew she was using alternative facts. When my colleagues and I on the Defence Committee released a report that concluded
“it is now time for the MoD to deliver on its promises”,
I imagine we already knew that it had no intention of doing so—although I am interested to know if that report played any part in delaying the strategy, or if Ministers simply chose not to tell Parliament of their intentions.
It was not entirely clear, when Sir John Parker’s independent report was announced, whether informing Parliament was part of the original strategy. When the report was finalised, we thought that it would be the formal strategy going forward. There is plenty to agree with in Sir John’s report. Many of its findings chime with my experiences of MOD procurement, namely that there was a
“vicious cycle of fewer and much more expensive ships being ordered late and entering service years later than first planned”,
“The Government must drive cultural and governance changes in Defence that inject genuine pace into the procurement process with a clear grip over requirements, cost and time.”
However, we are now getting to a stage at which the report, far from being too little, too late, is too much, much too late. It will once more allow Ministers to take us around the houses and hope that we forget that they are running out of time to fulfil previous promises made to the House, the Royal Navy and the men and women on the Clyde.
While there is
“no precedent for building two ‘first of class’ RN frigates in one location in the UK”,
there appears to be no real alternative to the Clyde, as I am sure we will hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens). Let us get on with signing the Type 26 contract and ensure that the Type 31 is ready to go as soon as possible.”
Click here for the full transcript of the debate, on the UK Parliament website.