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Type 26 Frigates: Base-Porting

Volume 642: debated on Wednesday 6 June 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered base-porting of Type 26 frigates.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. As the Member of Parliament for Devonport and its dockyard and naval base, I am proud to be standing here again making the case for ensuring that Devonport—the largest naval base in western Europe—is home to all the Type 26 frigates and, I hope, the Type 31s and the remainder of the Type 23 frigates with tails. As the son of a Devonport-based submariner, I know how important a strong defence is to our city. Plymouth is a proud military city, but it is living under the cloud of possible defence cuts.

We live in uncertain times, with the rise of Russia, new insurgent technologies and tactics destabilising countries across the globe, autonomous warfare, cyber-warfare, piracy and old foes investing in their militaries. I believe that the best deterrent against a rearming and resurgent Russia is a strong Royal Navy. I make no apologies for again making the case that many have heard me make in this Chamber and elsewhere: we need more and more capable frigates, and we must preserve our amphibious capacities and base-port all our new frigates in Devonport.

Given that a decision on base-porting frigates might be imminent in the upcoming modernising defence review, I hope that this debate will help to convince the Minister of the compelling case for basing all the new global combat ships—the Type 26 frigates—in Devonport. I will set out why I believe there is a compelling and convincing case for Devonport and why the Type 26 frigate is a platform we can be proud of. I will also talk about the critical cog in the Royal Navy, the backbone of the senior service—the men and women of the Royal Navy—and why basing them and the frigates in Devonport is the right thing to do. That is not just my view; it is the view of the cross-party Devonport taskforce, co-ordinated by Plymouth City Council. Whether Conservative-run, as it was up to May, or Labour-run, as it has been since May, there is cross-party support, consensus, and determination among all local parties to win these frigates, to protect our amphibious ships and Royal Marines, and to deal with the legacy of the old submarines. I know that the Minister values cross-party campaigning, and I hope we can demonstrate that today.

Devonport is already home to half the nation’s frigates. We are the base for the Royal Navy’s anti-submarine warfare Type 23 frigates. The Type 23s with tails are the frontline of our efforts to counter increased Russian submarine activity in the north Atlantic and protect our northern flank.

NATO revised its view of the north Atlantic and the High North in the maritime strategy, as the hon. Gentleman has just suggested. I understand his making the case for his own constituency, but is it not sensible to ensure that some of the Type 23s and Type 26s are based in Rosyth, for example, to give us extra cover in the north? We have seen many examples of incursions from Russian ships of late, so it would make strategic sense to base some ships—perhaps not the whole fleet—in Scotland, and particularly in Rosyth.

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I disagree with base-porting older frigates there, but the idea of forward-deploying the Type 31e frigates, which I will come to in a moment, and basing them in locations other than just their base port is a good one, and he might want to pick up on that.

Devonport already has the skills and expertise to base the Type 23s. Indeed, it is arguable that we already have Type 26s in Devonport. I say that because HMS Argyll—a Type 23 frigate that is already equipped with much of the tech of a Type 26—is already one of our ships there. The hulls might need renewing, but that Type 23 frigate, which I was very pleased to visit on choppy seas earlier this year, is already carrying the combat systems—the tech and operational control functions—of a Type 26 frigate. Much of the crew of the first Type 26—HMS Glasgow—are already probably serving on Devonport-based Type 23s.

With quick access to the deep water of the north Atlantic, Devonport is ideally suited to counter the threats in the Atlantic and to support the continuous at-sea deterrent and carrier strike. Devonport has another ace up its sleeve: we are home to the world-class Flag Officer Sea Training establishment, under Admiral John Clink, who will retire shortly. Plymouth and navies around the world, including our own, are indebted to his leadership. FOST is the final hurdle that a ship and its crew must clear before being sent on missions around the globe. It is a jewel in the crown of the British armed forces and, like all good things in Plymouth, we rarely tell anyone about it. As a proud janner—someone born in Plymouth who lives in Plymouth—I feel I can say that Plymouth all too often hides its light under a bushel, and then hides the bushel. That has been the case with FOST, and I think we should speak loudly and proudly about its global role. Given the location of FOST, Devonport’s experience of basing anti-submarine warfare frigates, and its geographical position, there is a good case for allied nations using it more as a quick reaction base for surface ships. I encourage the Minister to look creatively at inviting NATO forces to use Devonport’s superb facilities in the months and years ahead.

The people of the Royal Navy are the backbone of the fleet. The crews of the Type 23s with tails have already made Devonport and Plymouth their home. They have found schools for their children and homes, and they have a genuine connection to our city and the areas around Plymouth. Those people will provide the leadership, specialist trades, expertise and crews for the new Type 26 frigates.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the importance of the crew to the local economy—they are very much part of our culture. He is probably aware of a study that either the council or the university—I forget which—did about 10 years ago. It showed that, surprisingly, quite a large proportion of the crew of any ship base-ported in Plymouth—or anywhere else, I imagine—live elsewhere in the UK, but a hard core, or a significant minority, live in Plymouth or the port area. They have a significant role in boosting our local economy and being part of the local social fabric.

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. It is really important that we value the people who serve on our ships and, importantly, the people out of uniforms—the civilians—who support the base-porting of the ships and the jobs that result from that.

Many of the warfare and technical specialists who use the combat and operating systems on the Type 23s and Type 26s already live in a PL postcode. As south-west Members know, the PL postcode extends far and wide across the far south-west, as it should do. Preserving those roles and those people in our region is paramount in this basing decision. Confirming Devonport as a long-term naval anti-submarine warfare centre of excellence would support forces families as well as strategic efforts.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I am sure he will recognise that this is about not just the PL postcodes but the TQ postcodes of south Devon. Many of the workers whose skills will be of benefit to the future Type 26 programme live and work there and commute to Devonport every day. To base-port the frigates in Devonport would boost the wider regional economy, not just Plymouth’s.

I thank my near-neighbour for that comment. It was foolish of me to forget our friends up the A38, which I hope will soon be the M5.

I too congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. It is important that we in this House acknowledge the very proud service history that he has referred to in his constituency. This is due serious consideration. Having the frigates based there will ensure job security and will send a very clear message that the modern defence strategy incorporates the ability to place ships strategically in strong defence areas. The hon. Gentleman represents one of those areas.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. I agree that it is important that we build on the areas of expertise we already have. In Devonport, Plymouth and the wider south-west we have military expertise and a close connection with the armed forces, which aids recruitment.

The context of this debate matters. It is not just frigates that are based at Devonport naval base and serviced in the dockyard, but amphibious ships. When the news of the threats to HMS Albion, HMS Bulwark and the Royal Marines was first mooted last summer, I called for clarity and for Ministers to rule out those cuts. Some said that I was scaremongering, but the threat to those ships was real then and sadly is real today, as is the threat to HMS Ocean, our amphibious helicopter carrier, which will shortly leave Devonport for the last time and join the Brazilian navy as PHM Atlântico. That is when I launched the campaign to fight for more frigates in Devonport. I believed that we needed not just one extra Type 23 with a tail transferred from Portsmouth, but a commitment to make all the Type 26s and Type 31s Devonport-based, too. At the time, I said:

“I’m no longer content with Devonport being on the defensive and today call for all of the new Type 26 and 31 Frigates to be based in Devonport alongside our world class amphibious ships.”

Most of the Type 31e frigates, which will join the Type 26s as part of the replacement for the Type 23s, will be forward-deployed. The Type 26s will not be, so their basing arrangement is perhaps the bigger win for any locality, even if the Type 31e frigates may be with us sooner than 2026 for their larger sister ships. I also believe that the Type 31s should be based in Devonport, even if that is more paper-basing than base-porting in the traditional sense, due to the forward-deployed nature of many of the new lighter frigates.

In January I led a Westminster Hall debate on the Government’s national shipbuilding strategy. I made the case to the Minister for why Devonport is a world-class naval base and why it should be home to the Type 26s. The energy behind the will to base the frigates there also arises from the local community in the far south-west to protect our amphibious warships. The petition that I launched to preserve the amphibious ships and the Royal Marines attracted 30,000 names, the bulk of them from the far south-west, although the Minister will be pleased to hear that 34 people in his constituency also signed it.

Since then, however, we have seen further threats to our city with the confirmation that Stonehouse barracks, the spiritual home of the Royal Marines, is to close, as is the Royal Citadel, both in my constituency. There are also job losses as Babcock restructures.

The hon. Gentleman may be slightly mistaken. The announcement of the rebasing strategy was in 2015, long before the current process. This is not about party politics, because over the years Governments of all colours have not paid enough attention to Plymouth, but if the rebasing strategy happens and the Type 26s can be base-ported in Plymouth, does he agree that under this Government we shall actually see a growth in the military for the first time in a generation, and that is to be welcomed?

We shall actually see replacement of the existing Type 23s with Type 26s, so the risk is that we shall lose ships if we do not get the Type 26 decision, rather than gaining extra ships. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are already losing HMS Ocean, sadly, so our naval base contingent is already one large ship down.

The modernising defence review is a chance to present a new vision for defence in Plymouth to back our jobs and secure our future. The review needs to be used as a positive way of encouraging more people to see their future not only in the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines, but in the industries that service the ships and our fighting forces. To do that, we need certainty on the future of HMS Albion, HMS Bulwark and the Royal Marines—from the volume and frequency of questions I have asked the Minister over the months since he took up his role, he knows that I feel strongly about that.

However, we must be under no illusion: the new frigates should not be based in Devonport simply as a sop for losing the amphibious ships. We have fought a cross-party campaign across Plymouth on three fronts: frigates; amphibious ships and Royal Marines; and our legacy submarines. We need to win on each of them, and we cannot afford to lose any one element.

The Minister knows that I have had concerns about the Type 31e and how lightly armed it is, but I have no such concerns about the world-class Type 26. It is a ship that our nation should and will be proud of. It is being built in Scotland—

Saying that, the hon. Gentleman allows me to ask whether he agrees that the fact that the Type 26s are being built on the Clyde shows the importance of Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom, both for UK defence capabilities and for the shipbuilding industry on the Clyde.

I agree entirely. The remark about the apprentice who will work on the last of the Type 26 frigates not being born yet shows what a long-term commitment to British shipbuilding the Type 26 programme represents and how important it is for us to secure other shipbuilding contracts, such as that for the fleet solid support ships, so that such ships are built in British shipyards, which many people across the House believe should be the case.

The Type 26 will be a world-class ship. My only concern is that there are too few of them—to be precise, five too few—and that we are not replacing all Type 23s with a Type 26. However, there is no doubt that this ship is world-class, can be put in harm’s way, will have the capabilities of a modern navy, and will be the envy of our allies and a worry to our opponents. Numerically, our fleet is small compared with that of Russia or China, but our capabilities are miles ahead. Indeed, these are ships that our allies may well sail as well.

I hope that Canada chooses the Type 26 platform for its six new frigates and that our cousins down under order nine of them for the Royal Australian Navy’s future frigate programme. There is cross-party support for selling not only the design of the platform but the expertise in the supply chain, because not all the export jobs for the frigates will be in building hulls, but in weapons, combat systems and other support items on the frigate, supplying value to the entire British supply chain.

I do not want to use any time saying why other bases would not work for the Type 26, because Plymouth and Devonport’s case is sufficiently compelling. Portsmouth is a good base for the carriers, the Type 45 destroyers and the OPVs, or offshore patrol vessels. Devonport should be home to frigates, refits and the Royal Navy’s amphibious capabilities—not all the Royal Navy, just the best bits.

Back in June last year, in my maiden speech, I called for more capable frigates, which the capabilities of the Type 26 deliver. Shortly after winning my seat in the general election, I wrote to the then Defence Secretary asking for a new Type 26 to be named after Plymouth. That was a campaign started by my predecessor, Oliver Colvile—formerly the Conservative MP. I supported it as a candidate, and I continue to do so now as an MP. I want to see one of the new city-class ships named after Plymouth, but there is little point naming her after Plymouth if she is to be based in Portsmouth, as I am sure the Minister understands.

With others, I have been working hard to lobby Ministers, making the case for Devonport. This has been a team effort, and our case is strongest in that cross-party spirit. I have also been lobbying colleagues on the Labour Benches. I am really pleased that Labour has backed my campaign, pledging that a Labour Government would base-port all Type 26 frigates in Devonport. Whether that Labour Government is sooner or later, the shadow Defence Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), is right when she says that Devonport’s case for the new frigates is “compelling, comprehensive and convincing”. I agree with her on that.

Plymouth’s three Members of Parliament—all present today—the Labour leader of Plymouth City Council and the Conservative leader of the opposition are united in our belief that Devonport is the best place for the new ships. I have called for cross-party working on the issue since I started the campaign last year. Ministers have told me that that is the approach they want to see from Plymouth in the campaign, and I recognise that a strong and united campaign by Plymouth is vital to persuade the Ministry of Defence to decide in Devonport’s favour. We achieve more when we work together and less when we are divided. By the end of this debate I hope that Ministers will have heard from the united voice of Plymouth and the surrounding areas that Devonport is the ideal location for the Type 26 frigates.

From 2026 onwards, I want to see HMS Glasgow and her sister ships in Devonport, together with our world-class amphibious ships. In setting out the case for Devonport, I have also set out the cross-party and cross-Plymouth support that the campaign enjoys. Basing the new frigates in Devonport is the right strategic choice, the right defence choice, the best option for forces’ families, and the right choice for Plymouth, Devonport and our nation. I realise that the Minister has to make many tough decisions in his role—hard decisions, life-and-death decisions—but this is not one of them. This should be a simple decision—an easy choice for him. Devonport is the best location for the Type 26s. I encourage the Minister to make that decision in our favour at the earliest opportunity.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on his speech, much of which I agree with and subscribe to. I also congratulate the other Members for the city of Plymouth on being present to support the debate. It is right to describe the Plymouth campaign as city-wide, and the campaign is appreciated. It was certainly difficult not to come away from my visit to Plymouth with the strong impression of the support afforded over centuries to the Royal Navy by the people of the city of Plymouth. I appreciate the passion displayed by all hon. Members, the three representing the city in particular, and the Ministry of Defence and I understand the feeling behind the speech.

The decision on the base-porting of the Type 26 is an important one that will have to be taken sooner rather than later. When we take that decision, we shall take into account a number of factors that have to be considered seriously and carefully, as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport will understand. We shall be looking at issues of logistics, infrastructure and personnel. On personnel, I echo the tribute he paid to the Royal Navy crews who man the frigates already based in Plymouth and to their support staff, whether military or civilian.

On the timing, does the Ministry of Defence grasp the issue about us needing a commitment not even sooner rather than later, but before the summer recess? We need a decision point that we can look at, and take back to people and say, “Yes, we will get a decision on it,” so that we will have delivered something from the campaign.

My hon. Friend tempts me to offer an answer now, but I am sure he understands that it would be remiss of me to make such a commitment now, especially as we are still awaiting the completion of the Modernising Defence Programme. However, I stress again that we are looking at the issues seriously, including training, force generation and cost. We will certainly make an announcement before the end of the year. I anticipate that we might be able to make announcements before then, although I would not want my hon. Friend to come away thinking that the intention is to have an early decision. We are trying to ensure that we make a decision based on the facts of the situation, and I assure my hon. Friend that the support that Plymouth is showing for the campaign is being taken on board. Plymouth’s capability and the capacity as a naval base is also understood by the Ministry of Defence. I hope that gives some reassurance, if not the exact dates that he was looking for.

Has the Minister given any consideration at all, on a slightly longer time scale, to where the new Type 31s may be based?

Ultimately, we are looking very carefully at the rebasing; the fact of the matter is that we are building an enhanced Royal Navy. We will have more surface ships in the Royal Navy than we have had for a long time. We have seen the Royal Navy grow for the first time in a long time. All these decisions are under review. That is why it is important to understand that the decision on the Type 26 is not being taken in isolation. We are making decisions in the context of a growing Royal Navy. I suspect that every Member who has spoken in this debate would welcome the fact that the Royal Navy is growing. The reason for that growth is the new challenges that we face and the demand that we respond to them, and some of those were articulated by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport.

We are aware of the long-standing support offered to the Royal Navy by Plymouth and the Devonport base since 1691. There is a 300-year history. It is very difficult to visit Plymouth without being moved by the contribution that the city has made to the prosperity and the protection of this country over 300 years. Clearly, the size of the estate is unique. It is the largest base of its kind in Europe, stretching over 940 acres, and has more than 100 listed buildings and 3.5 miles of waterfront. This is a base that has been providing support for our Royal Navy for a very long time. That history is clear from visiting the city of Plymouth.

The Government’s commitment is clear: to enhance the Royal Navy—the surface fleet and the submarine fleet. It is important to understand the context of this debate, which is the growth in the Royal Navy. We are committed to building our eight anti-submarine warfare Type 26 frigates. The hon. Gentleman’s support for our export campaigns in Australia and Canada is appreciated. We have run a fantastic campaign in Australia and we are running a fantastic campaign in Canada. The capability of the platforms that we are building, with the support of our fantastic shipbuilders on the Clyde, is something that we take very seriously. It is great to see this unified approach to highlighting the capability of the Type 26.

The contract to build the Type 26 was awarded in June 2017. We have already cut steel and are building the first blocks on HMS Glasgow, which is very good news. Some people have claimed that it is nothing more than a paper ship; any hon. Members who have been to the Clyde will be able to say quite categorically that that is not the case. The work is being undertaken and the quality of the work is excellent.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport highlighted the long-term commitment to shipbuilding on the Clyde that that order represents in his comments about the apprenticeships opportunities. The last of the apprentices who will be involved in the Type 26 programme have not yet been born. The Type 26 programme shows our commitment to long-term shipbuilding. I make no apology about the fact that we are also looking at the Type 31e. It is a case of identifying our capability need and what the Navy needs. The Type 31e is welcome from a procurement point of view. It is a general-purpose frigate being built to a cost limit, but it is also a new way of doing procurement.

When I travel around the world in my role—when the parliamentary arithmetic allows such travel to occur—I find it fascinating to see how closely defence departments in other countries are watching our Type 31 procurement. The capability and the cost of the Type 26 are recognised and have been recognised in the debate. Not many countries have the capability or the financial power to purchase such a high level of capability as the Type 26, but they are interested in what we are trying to achieve with the Type 31. The combined effort is showing a degree of confidence in our shipbuilding strategy, but it is also showing a confidence in our Royal Navy.

It is important to highlight that the Type 23 frigates have been and remain a significant part of the activities in Devonport. The decision to base the eight anti-submarine Type 23s in Devonport was correct. That decision has resulted in more coherence in our basing. I share the hon. Gentleman’s admiration for the crews of the Type 23; I have also flown on to Argyll and have enjoyed Thursday war games with the crew. The professionalism and the commitment of the crew was something to behold.

I take exception to the comments that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport made about defence cuts. We have to acknowledge this issue on a cross-party basis, and it needs to be very carefully articulated, because it contributes to a false impression of what is happening in defence. The Government are committed to increasing defence spending. We have a protected budget of £37 billion. That budget is increasing by half a per cent above inflation year in year out for the lifetime of this Parliament. That commitment needs to be understood.

We talk about cuts, but it is important to put that in context. We are increasing defence spending. The challenge is to manage that increased spending. When we casually use the word “cuts”, we are sending a message—often a false message—that is a reassurance to our opponents and that causes distress and concern for some of the people working in our armed forces. I understand the context in which the comment was made, but I want to put it on record that we are expanding and extending our defence capabilities and are spending more on defence. My own equipment budget is £180 billion over the next 10 years, which by any stretch of the imagination is a significant budget. That includes a £63 billion commitment to enhancing the Royal Navy. I am sure that most Members will acknowledge that that is a significant commitment.

I welcome the Minister’s comments. Clearly, we have to conduct the debate from a position of truth. We have a growing defence budget, but in Plymouth we have seen things like the defence rebasing strategy that have put people’s livelihoods and jobs in that city under threat. It has kind of paused; it is not going anywhere. We need the commitment. Will the Minister take back to the Department that we need something firm to deliver for the people of Plymouth in the very near future?

At the risk of repeating myself, I think the message has been heard loud and clear from the three Members from Plymouth and from other Members. The Ministry of Defence has heard that message. We have to put things in order, because we have to do things in the context of the Modernising Defence Programme, but I assure my hon. Friend and other colleagues that the message about the importance of this decision for Devonport has been understood.

I thank the Minister for his generosity. He talks about cuts, but I would argue that the position is not quite as he painted. Can I infer from what he has said that HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are now safe?

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are safe until 2033 and 2034, which is the current situation. Those are the decommissioning dates for both vessels.

The situation in Plymouth and Devonport is still a significant success story. I acknowledge that there are challenges, but the activities taking place there—the flag officer sea training, Royal Marines Tamar and the commitment for the new oil jetty that has been built at Thanckes—are commitments and expenditure that highlight the fact that there is a very positive future for the base at Devonport. That positive future is not because we owe anything other than the right decision for the people of Plymouth, but that right decision will reflect the history of service and support that has been offered to the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Navy by the people of Plymouth and the people involved in the bases in Plymouth. We should be very proud of the fact that it is a key component of our defence infrastructure. The continued added investment made by the Ministry of Defence highlights the fact that there is a bright future for the base in Devonport.

I will close by thanking all hon. Members who have contributed to what has been a constructive debate. It is important to put everything into the context of a growing Royal Navy, for the first time in decades—we all welcome that. The context is an enhanced and increasing defence budget, but one that is still challenged, for the reasons that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport highlighted, such as the changing threat environment.

I stress to all hon. Members, especially the three hon. Members representing the city of Plymouth, that we have heard the message very clearly. That message will be conveyed back to the Department. I look forward to the result of the Modernising Defence Programme and, in due course, a decision being made on the basing of the Type 26 frigates, which are a world-class capability.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.