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UK Sovereign Capability

Volume 649: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered UK sovereign capability.

This is a subject that I have spoken about frequently since my election and is close to my heart. I grew up in a shipbuilding family, so from a very early age I became acquainted with the concept of feast and famine orders in shipbuilding in this country. I also developed an awareness of what we need to do to maintain a sovereign capability, not just in shipbuilding but across the full spectrum of defence.

I will be 30 years old in January. Britain’s defence industry landscape has diminished considerably since I was born. Look at shipbuilding. I attended my first ship launch—of HMS Lancaster—when I was one year old. There were a number of shipyards around the UK that built surface vessels, including Swan Hunter in Tyneside and Cammell Laird—

In Birkenhead, as my right hon. Friend says. We also had Vosper Thornycroft in Southampton, and Harland and Wolff in Belfast, to name just a few, but today the landscape is much diminished. The Clyde is the only UK location capable of building complex warships, and even its capabilities have been significantly downsized. In 2013, when I was working in that very shipyard, more than 1,500 jobs in the shipbuilding industry were lost, and the BAE Systems shipyard in Portsmouth—formerly Vosper Thornycroft—closed.

Some 75% of shipbuilding jobs in the UK have been lost since the 1980s. That downsizing was predicated on a realisation that Britain did not have a naval fleet big enough to sustain the industrial base that existed at the time. Rather than drip-feeding orders to yards that would never be at full enough capacity to invest in world-class infrastructure, the idea was to cut our cloth accordingly, so in 2009 the then Labour Government signed a terms of business agreement with BAE Systems. The concept was to introduce a proper and rigorous strategy for shipbuilding in the UK. In return for rationalisation and transformation, the industry would be guaranteed a certain drumbeat of industrial capacity that would give it the confidence to invest in reaching the upper quartile of the world.

When I started working in the shipyards as a young graduate, one of my jobs was to study every other shipyard in the world that was building complex warships, benchmark us against them, determine what they were doing right and develop a prescription that would allow us to design a world-class shipyard in the UK. That seemed a laudable aspiration, because if we could build an infrastructure in the certainty of a pipeline of orders, we could build ships that achieved world-class performance, saving the taxpayer money. It was such a great idea that other countries followed the same model—most notably Canada, which developed its own national shipbuilding strategy and, indeed, employed the very same person from the Royal Navy who developed our strategy under the terms of business agreement.

Sadly, when I corresponded with the Minister for defence people and veterans last November, he informed me that the terms of business agreement had been extinguished in return for the signature of the Type 26 manufacture phase 1 contract. It was then superseded by the national shipbuilding strategy, which in the meantime was used as cover to significantly reduce the scope of ships that the UK had been qualified to build, and that had given certainty to UK industry. The very first page of the strategy document states:

“It is only by building ships that we will once again become good at building ships”.

Well, quite. That seems like a laudable aspiration and exactly what we all want to achieve, but unfortunately the strategy itself undermines that effort, restricting the scope of orders that can go through UK shipyards by limiting the exclusivity of UK build to frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers.

The 2009 terms of business agreement made very clear the range of ships that were to be built exclusively in the UK without competition, including aircraft carriers; amphibious vessels; all forms of frigates and destroyers; mine countermeasure vessels, including all design and major subcontracted work; all minor naval vessels, including patrol ships; and complex auxiliary ships, which at the time meant the vessels for joint sea-based logistics and joint casualty treatment. That certainty would have enabled British industry to invest in world-class facilities that delivered world-class performance for UK shipyards, achieving the competitive advantage that we had so long striven for. Given that other countries are successfully employing the very same model—Canada now plans to build 15 Type 26 frigates, as opposed to Britain’s much diminished effort of just eight, if we even get them—it is self-evident that we are doing something very wrong by undermining that effort.

It seems to me that the national shipbuilding strategy, particularly the Type 31e frigate project, is a classic example of the Government misidentifying the root cause of the problem that they are trying to solve. The UK prosperity agenda and the effort to make our industry better would be much better served by providing certainty for industry to invest in being world class. That would achieve the opening gambit set out in the strategy document.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the challenges for the prosperity agenda, and for the Royal Navy’s aspiration to be part of making us a global maritime nation again post Brexit, is that the Treasury does not have a model that helps the Ministry of Defence to plan for that or values the impact that building in the UK rather than abroad would have on the coffers of UK plc?

I thank the hon. Lady for that pertinent intervention, which drives home the point that I am trying to make. I am highlighting the landscape as I see it now, which is not what we want to achieve and is not optimal. That is not necessarily the fault of the Ministry of Defence, but of what Sir John Parker’s report refers to as the “total enterprise” of shipbuilding, which very much includes the Treasury as financial controller.

Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), the MOD is at fault. It takes no account whatever, either in shipbuilding or in other procurement contracts, of the value added to the UK economy, not just in skills but in the money that the Treasury gets back through tax and national insurance.

The Minister might have been hopeful that I was absolving him of all blame in the matter, but I did not quite mean that; I meant that it was not entirely the fault of the Ministry of Defence, because there is a combined silo mentality across Government. My right hon. Friend makes the important point that in shipbuilding and in major defence procurement programmes, there has been a failure to understand the total prosperity effort across the UK. Royal Caribbean would never approach financing the building of a cruise ship in the way that the Ministry of Defence finances its frigates. The MOD does not achieve anywhere near the sort of efficiencies that commercial operators such as Cunard or Royal Caribbean achieve.

The MOD and the UK Government’s considerations ought to be about what maximises industrial and economic benefit to the UK as a whole, but they have failed to incorporate that into their processes for making these critical decisions. To give a classic example, modelling done by the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions makes it clear that if major shipbuilding programmes were procured in the UK, the return of wage and supplier payments to the Exchequer would effectively achieve a 20% net material discount. The prosperity of those programmes would flow back into the UK economy instead of being bled out into another country.

The hon. Gentleman described the order for eight frigates earlier. Before the first world war, there was the great cry for dreadnoughts—“we want eight and we can’t wait.” Whatever the size of the Government’s programme, is not one of the problems the reliability of the dates for when they start commissioning the programme, which is very important for the longer-term future of shipbuilding? Is it not also about, with this phase, the confirmation that they will give a role in bidding—and therefore a chance of winning—to yards such as Cammell Laird’s, which has done so well recently in helping to build defence orders, but also in winning a major merchant contract, which I think is the first for a British yard in 20 or 30 years?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Britain became a pre-eminent naval power because its industry was pre-eminent and because it was an innovator. That is what we need to get back to. The national shipbuilding strategy is trying to achieve that, but it falls short on how it will deliver it, because it militates against the very objectives it is trying to achieve. Industry needs certainty of capacity, so that it can invest with a degree of vigour in shipbuilding.

I talked about HMS Lancaster and the launch of the Type 23 frigate, which was my first ship launch, as a babe in arms, at Yarrow’s in Scotstoun. Sir Bob Easton was chairman of Yarrow’s at that time and made it quite clear that the Type 23 frigate was being bid in batches of three. It was Swan Hunter versus Yarrow. In 1990, Bob Easton said, “I am currently employing 2,500 people in my shipyard. I can employ them until the end of 1991. If I don’t get an order next year, I am making 1,000 of those people redundant, and that is the stark reality of what I am facing. It is not just about the jobs. I would like to invest in a new covered shipbuilding facility. I would like to invest in modernised plant machinery, but the business case does not stack up, unless I know for sure that I am going to be building all of those Type 23 frigates.”

The same issue is playing out today. The national shipbuilding strategy harks back to the same mentality, driving the same behaviours. Whether it is Cammell Laird or BAE Systems, they will not be able to say that they have a prescription for a world-class frigate factory, as it was dubbed, or a modern dock hall covered facility. They will not be able to make that business case stack up. They will not be able to put their shareholders’ money into that and to finance it, unless there is the certainty on the horizon that they will be building the entire programme, and unless there is legal certainty that that will happen. Without that certainty, companies cannnot make the investment and we therefore cannot get the operational efficiencies that deliver the savings and the cost reductions that would enable the Royal Navy, ultimately, to build a larger fleet. That is the virtuous cycle that we ought to be striving towards. Unfortunately, the strategy document undermines it.

When it comes to Type 31, the same point is still an excellent one. By bidding it in blocks and spreading it around the country, we lose the critical mass and do not get the certainty that would allow a shipyard such as Cammell Laird’s to invest in building a production line of Type 31 frigates, in parallel with a production line of Type 26 frigates. Ultimately, we want to get to exactly what the Americans do. They have been building Arleigh Burke cruisers since the 1980s; they have built the exact same ship in a consistent way for the last 30 years or more.

The hon. Gentleman is making a very good point. Does he agree that we were promised 13 frigates in 2014, not eight plus five general purpose ships? The shipyard workers in both Scotstoun and Govan have been hugely let down by those broken promises.

Yes, Anniesland. I was one of those shipyard workers at the time. I agree that certain understandings were given about investment. Indeed, the bulk of Scotstoun shipyard was demolished on the premise that it was going to be rebuilt as a new modern dock hall. I was personally involved in the project to design it; my personal investment in that project is second to none. However, it has to be recognised that the Clyde has certainty to the 2030s, although we need to go further in making the most of the opportunity we have.

I understand from the MOD that its ultimate aspiration would be to build Type 26 frigates in perpetuity if it could—if it had that certainty of financing and planning. Then we could be certain that the Clyde would always be the centre of production for those larger frigates. That would mean that other yards around the UK, such as Birkenhead, could focus on smaller projects, such as the Type 31, which could form a critical mass of a learning curve and a productivity enhancement, and secure the investment that would make it excellent at building those ships and more likely to win overseas orders as a result.

A strategy like that, with unit costs coming down, would allow us to compete seriously in the export market.

Unit costs ought to come down but the problem is that the way that the shipbuilding strategy is defined makes it more likely that the cost reductions will not be maximised. That is a great shame, because it undermines the aspirations of the strategy.

I am a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on shipbuilding and ship repair, and we hope to bring forward a report on the strategy very soon. It will highlight some of the opportunities to improve it, because we all share the same aspiration. We want to see a world-class industry in the UK that has the certainty to invest. We want a world-class product that is cost-effective enough to grow the size of the Royal Navy.

My hon. Friend rightly focuses on warships, but it is also about the civilian ships for the Ministry of Defence. Unlike every one of our European competitors, the Ministry of Defence stubbornly insists on advertising abroad. There is a point about maintaining a competent workforce and the drumbeat of production, as well as the supply chain and the supply ecosystem, which is so important for sustaining all the yards. Can my hon. Friend find a logical, rational explanation for why the Ministry of Defence refuses to behave like every other European naval country?

My right hon. Friend’s point goes back to that made earlier about the Treasury’s behaviour. I feel that this is almost about an economic orthodoxy that drives behaviour and says that we must maximise competitive tendering for the sake of it, because there is some sort of axiom that it works because it does. That approach does not bear scrutiny. Shipbuilding has the highest barriers to entry of any major industry in the world. It is a hugely capital-intensive industry and the only way to make it work, and the only way to get to a world-class, market-dominant position—much like with aerospace, where, as we know, the Americans and Europeans built their own champions in the form of Airbus and Boeing—is by having that synergy between Government, industry and the research and development base that makes it work. That is what we ought to have with shipbuilding in the UK. Fragmenting it in the way proposed in the national shipbuilding strategy serves only to undermine the UK’s long-term sovereign capability in shipbuilding. It is the primary sovereign interest of the UK to have that capability. We are an island nation, a nation of islanders and shipbuilders, and we ought to maintain that capability.

There are critical issues at stake here. We have already heard that Appledore, owned by Babcock, is due to close in March, which will be a devastating blow to the local community and to the UK’s wider defence manufacturing base. It is yet another shipyard to fall. Once it falls, it will not recover and be reopened—that is a simple fact. Once it is gone, it is gone. Despite the recent contract announcement at Cammell Laird, it is also completing an HR1 notification form and making significant redundancies. That is very unfortunate, and speaks to the point about feast and famine. We cannot have these cycles in capacity any more; we need to smooth the cycle as much as possible.

In the context of major shipyard closures and significant downsizing, whether that is at Rosyth or Appledore, it is bizarre that the Government are quite happy to tender contracts overseas in international open competition. Under article 346 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, the Government could quite easily designate the industry as UK-protected. It is entirely at their discretion. Any notion that their hands are tied is bogus. They could do that, smooth the production cycles and build a firm and stable footprint for UK shipyards, which would enable them to get match fit and then go out into the world and compete effectively for other orders. That is exactly what they do in Italy with Fincantieri, and what they do in France with DCNS. It is exactly what happens in Germany.

I do not understand why other European Union member states can achieve the same objectives much more effectively than us, but we are so holier than thou that it hurts when it comes to the zealous application of these EU rules and we seem to undermine our own industrial base and our prosperity as a result, meaning that communities are broken and skills lost. Ultimately, we undermine our objective of building a more resilient and effective industrial base to serve our defence industry and, potentially, commercial spin-offs.

Barrow-in-Furness is another example. The gap between the end of the Vanguard programme in the 1990s and the beginning of the Astute programme meant that the shipyard was essentially unable to build a submarine and they had to go to General Dynamics in the United States to be retaught how to build them. That is what we risk losing again if we are not careful.

It was surely not just the design capability and the managerial capability, but the actual day-to-day work experience and the work teams that have been created and then broken up. It took 12 to 24 months to rebuild that capability and was hugely expensive. The Ministry of Defence and the Treasury have still not learnt that lesson.

My right hon. Friend makes a very prescient point. There is no calculation of the opportunity cost when those skills are lost or of how much it costs to build them back up. The feast and famine cycle is hugely costly and inefficient, and the national shipbuilding strategy risks going back to that pattern. I think that is a critical point that the Minister really ought to address in his remarks about the national shipbuilding strategy.

Let me make it clear that we are all here to try to deliver the best outcome for defence infrastructure in the UK—we are trying to get to the same end goal. We are trying to offer the best of our understanding and experience of these issues to inform this document and improve it as much as we can, and it is fair to say that we want to achieve the same objectives.

We have also seen the development of a combat air strategy—the Tempest programme—which is laudable and looks promising, but there is a lack of an overarching objective on defence. We have already lost the capacity to build large fixed-wing aircraft through the cancellation of the Nimrod programme, which was done hastily by the disastrous 2010 strategic defence and security review and means that we have permanently lost that capability in the UK. Similarly, we have lost the capacity to build main battle tanks.

What else is at risk, and where is the risk profile of the sovereign capabilities that will be lost? What is expendable and what is indispensable? That is not defined in the national shipbuilding strategy, where there is talk of potentially putting the Type 31e combat management system out to international tender. Why do we not define what the key sovereign capability is—not just in the shipbuilding programme, but in aspects of its critical supply chain, including gearboxes, gas turbines, combat management systems, weapons systems and so on? We need to have that granularity of detail in the national shipbuilding strategy, but it is not there. That leaves it open to interpretation and extreme gerrymandering by the Ministry of Defence.

Those are the key issues that we have to highlight, whether they are across land, maritime—I am biased towards maritime, which I have focused on heavily—or aerospace. I am sure that other Members are willing to contribute and add their own thoughts to this debate, but essentially that is an overview of my main concerns about our UK sovereign capability and the risks to sustaining it.

The debate can last until 5.30 pm, and I am obliged to call the first of the Front-Bench spokespeople at 5.7 pm. The guidelines limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. We will then have time at the end for Mr Sweeney to sum up the debate. Two Members are seeking to catch my eye, and there has to be a time limit of six minutes and 30 seconds each. I first call Kevan Jones.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) on securing this debate. He emphasised the lack of strategy on maritime sovereign capability, but we need to ask the broader question of why we are in this mess today.

Since 2010, this Government have had no industrial strategy on defence. Some of the short-term decisions that were taken in 2010, when the Government slashed the defence budget by 16%, have resulted in capability gaps. A revolving door has been put on the office of the Minister for Defence Procurement, which means that they have a life expectancy a bit longer than a mayfly. That is not helpful when we need a champion in that role who can argue against the Treasury.

Why is sovereign capability important? If we want to have certain capabilities for the defence of our nation, we need to invest in them. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) has raised the issue of defence exports. He is right to say that if we are to nourish that industry, there is a defence export role to it. The Ministry of Defence and the Treasury have adopted Donald Trump’s mantra of “Make America great again”, because the procurements that have taken place are suggestive of an “America first” strategy. In the past few years, they have procured more than $8 billion-worth of contracts from the United States.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East and my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) both said, those procurements were not put out to contract; they were simply awarded. There were no competitions. We have the Apache contract and the P-8 contract—direct foreign military sales—and we have the scandalous situation of the airborne warning and control system, or AWACS, and I understand the Department is now going down the Wedgetail route. From talking to colleagues in NATO, I know that the Ministry of Defence has had no role, and nor is it interested, in partnering the programme that is replacing the 15 AWACS NATO aircraft. It is going down the Boeing route again. I am not sure whether soon we will have a sign at the Ministry of Defence’s Main Building saying, “Sponsored by Boeing”, but that seems to be the way it is going.

We also have the joint light tactical vehicle contract that was awarded to Oshkosh, with £1 billion of sales to replace armoured vehicles. There was no competition at all. At the same time, the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury are saying that the contract has to go out to competition. This is dangerous for our capability. It is not just about jobs, which are important, but about our supply chain and investment in research and development in our technology. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East will not remember the Falklands war, where we faced the issue of kit procurement from abroad. It reached a situation where we wanted to use the kit independently but were told that we could not.

I have serious concerns about this off-the-shelf approach to defence strategy, because there is no commitment at all. It would not happen in any other country—it would certainly not happen in the United States. If we were to sell equipment to the United States, there would have to be some offset in terms of jobs or investment there. This Government have not even tried. They trumpet the £100 million going into Lossiemouth, but that would have had to go anywhere. Boeing is going round on a public relations exercise, with glossy adverts that say it is now a British company, but it is not. There is very little evidence of real investment going into jobs and technology. That is not just today; our technology in this important sector is in long-term decline.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), who is no longer in her place, said that there is no indication that the Treasury or the Ministry of Defence recognises that if a contract is awarded in this country, the money will come back straightaway. That is a serious problem for them. Short-term decisions taken now will have long-term implications for our effectiveness not just at maintaining our sovereign capability in a whole host of areas including shipbuilding, which has been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East, but at maintaining our capability to use that kit in certain situations. For example, will we be able to get the upgrades on Apaches if a future US Government determine that we should not? That is why we need sovereign capability.

I hate to use the phrase “go back to basics”, but that is what the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence need to do. They need to make it clear that we need to procure and manufacture in the UK under sovereign capability, which should be the starting point for the defence industrial strategy. We have been promised it by the revolving door of Ministers for Defence Procurement, but it has never been put in place. It has to be a joined-up approach across Government that includes the prosperity agenda, which does not seem to matter when it comes to those huge contracts that have been awarded without competition. When there is a situation such as the fleet solid support ship contract, where we could have investment in UK jobs and prosperity, we put it out to foreign competition. My right hon. Friend the Member for Warley is right: no other nation in Europe would do such a thing.

I am sorry; I am running out of time.

This scandal needs to be highlighted. I hope the Minister, in the time he has got in his new role, stands up to the knee-jerk “America first” reaction.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) on his superb oratory.

We are back here again: the same people are largely in the same chairs making the same arguments, although we have a different person in the Chair—you are very welcome, Mr Hollobone—and a different Defence Procurement Minister. I think he is the third since I was elected. We made effectively the same speeches to the previous Ministers, but he should not worry: these are good speeches with good arguments, and I am sure he will enjoy hearing them.

I think that we have a good Minister now. His freshness to defence means that he will bring a new approach to procurement decisions, and I hope that that will yield different results. We need different results, because our sovereign defence capability is at risk. I do not say that lightly, because I know that people who wish our country ill listen to these debates. We must present a strong and forthright position, and we must ensure that our military has the best equipment, the best training and, importantly, a supply chain and support structure that enables it to continue to operate at a high level. Russia is on the rise—it is increasing its threat to our country and making incursions into our airspace and waters—and China is growing its ambitions in the far east. The risk of state and non-state actors threatening the UK’s interests and those of our allies is high.

I will focus my remarks on the Royal Navy, about which much has been said. As the MP for Devonport, I would perhaps be expected to do that. The Royal Navy has suffered the greatest ill done to our sovereign defence capability. It could be said that that is also true of fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, and to Army equipment, but the Royal Navy has suffered the biggest impact. The shipyards that support our Royal Navy are not just about concrete, steel, bricks and mortar; they are about the people and skills, which must be invested in and grown over time. We have had holes in our procurement exercises in the past because there has not been a constant stream of investment in our shipyards. Although we do not build ships in Devonport, we refit them, and we need a constant stream of ships to be refitted to ensure we keep up our skills. That is why it is so important to get the Type 26 and Type 31 right.

I congratulate the Government on what they have done in supporting the industry to sell the Type 26 overseas. I hope the Americans adopt the Type 26 as a platform for their future frigate procurement, which they are struggling with at the moment. The Type 31 is an example of what we need to get better at. There was great potential for it in the national shipbuilding strategy. We need more hulls that can do defence engagement work, station keeping, and the forward deployment roles that are so important in our Royal Navy, while maintaining the high-end capability of the Type 26.

As hon. Members know, I have a problem with calling a Type 31 a frigate. I would much prefer it to be a world-class corvette, rather than a rather poor frigate. I normally use more colourful language, but I will mind my p’s and q’s in this Chamber. We need to sell the Type 31 as the best in class. That would make our international allies want to buy it, rather than one of the plentiful array of small frigates and corvettes that are on the market. The Type 26 shows that people want to buy high-end British technology. The procurement delays and the disruption in the procurement process over the summer do not give us much confidence in the procurement of the Type 31s.

We also need to look ahead. Over the past year, since I and many others in this House were elected, we have been fighting to save HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark. Other Members who would have been here if they had turned up might have claimed the success of the campaign to save those vital capabilities from being cut. Now that we have done that, we must ensure that we plan for suitable replacements for them. If Albion and Bulwark will go out of service in 2033 and 2034 respectively, we need a plan to build their replacements in UK shipyards. That is important, because it builds on the battle to ensure our Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships are built in UK shipyards, too.

We must maintain our sovereign defence capability to build such complex warships. I regard an RFA fleet solid support ship as a complex warship—the Government may stick it in a different column of their spreadsheet, but given that it has the roles and the capability of the RFA, I think it is a complex warship, and it should be built exclusively in UK shipyards.

Order. I cannot stop the hon. Gentleman intervening, but, including his summary at the end, he will have had 26 minutes of a 60-minute debate. I have to call the Front Benchers at 5.7 pm.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East is very enthusiastic, Mr Hollobone, and I know that he will make a speedy reply in his two minutes at the end.

We must support the trade unions. I am a proud GMB member, and it is important that its “Making It” campaign is heard loud and clear, not only by Labour Members but by Conservatives. Building the RFAs in UK shipyards is good for British business. It is good for those regions’ economies, the cities in which the shipyards are based, the supply chain and, perhaps most importantly of all, the Exchequer. Why are we exporting that money? If we do not invest in our shipyards, what happened to Appledore will happen again. Appledore is not in my constituency, but workers that came from it are working in Devonport now because Appledore ran out of orders. Without orders, shipyards cannot stay open, which means they cannot hire new apprentices and support the local supply chain. Ultimately, we lose that capability.

We need to talk louder about sovereign defence capability, because we need to preserve it. We need a discrete strategy to preserve our sovereign defence capability. I encourage the new Minister, for whom I have high hopes, to ensure sovereign defence capability runs like a golden thread through all the procurement decisions he and his Department take. It needs to be there if we are to secure jobs and our future capabilities.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) on securing this debate. If the UK aspires to be strong, global and influential, as the 2015 national security strategy announced, it needs access to a capable and resilient supply chain for its armed forces. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) talked about the provocations of certain nations, and we must be alert to the threats they pose.

Defence spending should not exist in a silo. Defence contracts have a series of economic consequences, the most obvious of which is the tax revenues that are generated. It is disappointing that, until now, the Government seem reluctant to take account of that. They receive an estimated 37% of the money spent on contracts in tax revenues, and that is not taking into account the multiplier effect of employees’ spending. That raises a question about their definition of value for money. When bids are considered in the future, we must take into account their impact on tax revenue and employment.

The ability to develop and maintain equipment depends on a rich research landscape and a skilled workforce, so it is critical that there is a commitment to increase science and technology funding, especially in the pure research phases of the development cycle. Most hardware requires after-sales service. We saw that in the equipment plan, which shows that in 2018-19 the MOD spent about £7.8 billion on new equipment and nearly £8.1 billion on support.

Once the capability to develop and produce complex systems has been given up, rebuilding it is difficult, time-consuming and risky. The hon. Member for Glasgow North East raised the issues with the Astute submarine programme. The excessive running-down of the Barrow workforce after the completion of the Trident programme is a classic illustration of that. As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport said, those workers are highly skilled and sought-after. There are plenty of industries ready to snap them up if our defence industry does not have opportunities for them.

We must be able to operate independently, so our capability should not be linked to the foreign policy of a supplier, as the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) said. There are no guarantees that the UK will only ever conduct military operations that the US recognises and supports. We may have to—or wish to—operate independently.

The contracts for the fleet solid support ships have been problematic for a long time. The idea of putting them out to international competition is short-sighted and reflects our siloed thinking. We know that other Governments subsidise their shipbuilding industries, thus allowing bids to appear competitive, and effectively buying industrial contracts. I wrote to the Minister’s predecessor earlier this year about that. He responded:

“We are confident in the measures we have in place to ensure the integrity of the FSS procurement process, including measures to ensure it is conducted strictly in accordance with the EU rules on state aid. Although these rules do not apply to non-EU companies, the MOD will make no such distinction in their application and all bids will be judged against the same standards.”

I would like some assurance from the Minister that those measures are still in place.

Many nations have shipbuilding capability, including many small nations. Denmark has been able to build all nine of its frigates, three arctic patrol vessels and seven large patrol craft, all in Danish shipyards. The Norwegian navy’s fleet is built in Norwegian yards. We must have the ambition—beyond 2030—to build not just our frigates and warships but our fleet support ships in yards here in the UK.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I offer my warmest congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) on securing such an important debate.

The defence industry is vital to the British economy, with a planned spend of £180 billion in the almost 10 years leading to 2026-27. That is a huge opportunity for the country’s economy, but one that has been lost because the Government have clearly rejected—despite their recent rhetoric—the idea of developing a sovereign capability for this country. Sadly, as we have heard this afternoon, the Government are increasingly buying kit off the shelf, principally from the United States of America. That is one reason why the Ministry of Defence has a deficit of £14.8 billion, according to the National Audit Office. Many MOD contracts are given without competition or openness, according to the single-source process, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) made clear. The mechanised infantry vehicle contract was recently given to the Boxer without any competition or openness, and it seems that the AWACS replacement will go the same way.

Where there is competition, we see international tenders, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) highlighted with the example of fleet solid support ships. We will be up against tenders from state-subsidised shipyards throughout the world, particularly in Korea, so it is not a level playing field. We could be ensuring that British industry and shipyards benefit from the investment coming from those contracts, but what do we see? Recently there was the announcement that Babcock was going to close Appledore shipyard in Devon, at a loss of nearly 200 skilled jobs. That shipyard has been open since 1885 and has the proud record of producing 350 vessels, but this Government are allowing it to be shut through inactivity. As the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) knows full well, nearly 300 workers at Cammell Laird are going to lose their jobs on the Mersey. There has also been a process of casualisation of the workforce, which will drive costs down but erode both employment and the skills of the workforce.

As the debate has demonstrated, we clearly need a sovereign industrial strategy for the defence industry. We need an industry that ensures a drumbeat of orders and provides jobs in all sectors of the defence economy, and as has been mentioned, we need to make particularly sure that our shipyards are fully provided with work and sufficient investment. We also need to think ahead and invest in technology as well as the skills of workers, and to be mindful of this country’s capacity to export, which sadly the Government are not.

I firmly believe that the shipyards and their workers should be at the very heart of this country’s industrial strategy. I believe that opportunities would present themselves if the Government decided, through the exercise of their political will, to bring forward a Type 31e frigate programme. If they decided, even at this late stage, to withdraw the international tender in order to ensure that the fleet solid support ships were built in British shipyards, there would be marvellous opportunities. That requires not just political will but an overarching perspective that looks beyond the short-term costs of the Ministry of Defence and instead at a holistic industrial strategy for the country, of which our industrial defence capability should be a central part.

In short, we need a Government who put the national interest first and do not look at pounds, shillings and pence in the short term, but have a long-term perspective that places British workers at the heart of an industrial strategy.

Order. If the Minister could conclude his remarks no later than 5.27 pm, that would allow Mr Sweeney time to sum up. I call the Minister.

Thank you very much, Mr Hollobone; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I too offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) for securing this important debate. I know that this is a matter close to his heart and an issue of great importance to him. I was somewhat depressed, however, by the fact that he said he will be 30 in January, given that I will be 47 next weekend, but there you go.

The right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) wondered how long I would be in post, and I am afraid that is one question on which I am not prepared even to speculate. I hope that I have proved, in the few months I have been in the role, that I am prepared to listen to all arguments—I will agree with some and disagree with others—and will take the time to absorb all the information. That is why I have spent a lot of time going around the country to listen to industry, the people working within it, and of course, the armed forces, to whom we are trying to supply important equipment. As the Minister, I am clearly responsible for procuring that equipment to ensure that we get the best value for our armed forces. It is also important to maintain the relationship with the UK industry and to promote exports and prosperity. Those issues are close to my heart. The debate has been informed by a clear recognition of the importance of the UK industry to our national security.

The debate has also given us an opportunity to remind ourselves of the extensive work that has already taken place to foster innovations and a competitive defence sector. The UK defence industry, working alongside our armed forces, plays a crucial role in delivering UK national security objectives. It is crucial to protect our people, project our influence around the world and promote national prosperity.

Every day since I took office, it has been a privilege to see the difference that the UK defence industry makes, whether that be the people, the equipment being provided, the training, the support, the infrastructure or the technology. Those elements are all there to help our nation’s defence. I think we are all proud to have a world-leading defence sector. The figures speak for themselves: in 2017 alone its turnover was £22 billion, with £9 billion of exports, and it supports over 140,000 jobs.

The report by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) showed that defence plays an important part in our economy. It is crucial to strong manufacturing technology and has a broad footprint in every corner of the United Kingdom. As a customer, we are always aware of the need to get the right capability for our armed forces, while ensuring value for money for the taxpayer. The key to that is a thriving and globally competitive defence sector that is an important part of a wider industrial base.

Helping that industry to grow and compete in a global market is a key objective of the defence industrial policy refresh that was published last year. The three strands to our approach are, first, to improve the way defence delivers wider economic and international value and national security objectives; secondly, to help industry be internationally competitive, innovative and secure; and thirdly, to ensure that it is easier to do business with the Ministry of Defence, which is an issue I have heard about particularly from small and medium-sized businesses.

We are committed to maximising value for the UK by taking into account potential economic impacts, strategic international interests and national security objectives. In the defence industrial policy refresh, we committed to a more systematic approach to considering prosperity and international and industrial security and ensuring that we are early in developing high-value business cases. Earlier, more holistic decisions will improve how we inform choices for military requirements and ensure that the acquisition strategy and commercial engagement support a full range of desired outcomes.

Hon. Members made a number of points; I will try to go through them all, but I suspect I will run out of time. If I do, I commit to write to each Member with an answer. First, I note the comment of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) about the merchant contract that was secured. If we can make our shipyards as competitive as possible across the globe, they will be more likely to secure more of those contracts. That is precisely why we have the national shipbuilding strategy. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) mentioned in an intervention that we had let down some shipyards. I want to emphasise that we have committed to 20 years’-worth of work for those shipyards. We are in the first batch of the three frigates, costing around £3.7 billion. The commitment to the remaining ones is there; we want to follow a process so that we learn from the first three and get the advantage of a better ship and better value for the taxpayer.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), whose constituency I was pleased to visit, talked about the Type 26s. Hopefully America is listening. I had the privilege of being in America recently, where we tried to push the point he made. We need to push wherever we have the opportunities. We should recognise the successes we have had with Australia and Canada. There is still a bit of time to go, but we are working hard on that. I hope industry will be given the confidence to look for contracts all over the globe, so that we can provide security.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West asked for reassurance about state aid. The response that my predecessor gave her stands for the future contracts—I hope that reassures her. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), who has left her place, mentioned tax and prosperity. We have to take into account the recently refreshed Treasury Green Book guidelines as part of our procurement process. The forward plan is exactly what the national shipbuilding strategy is about; it sets out the 30-year forecast of what the Royal Navy’s requirements will be, so we can give the industry the greater clarity it needs.

Appledore shipyard was an issue that arrived on my desk fairly early on. We engaged with Babcock and looked at all sorts of possibilities and options, but the timescales for the Type 31e and the FSS build would not have sustained the jobs at Appledore—or Cammell Laird, in fact.

The Minister mentioned the Type 31e. Let us not forget that the Government deliberately delayed the programme and put it out to tender again, having withdrawn the initial programme.

There were issues with the start of the procurement process. We have reset that, and I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are sticking to delivery of the first one by the end of 2023. We have made that commitment; this is an ambitious project, and we are determined and working incredibly hard to ensure that we catch up any time that may have been lost. Each time I have updates, I get more optimistic about how we are progressing.

Many Members have talked about the FSS. It is not quite true to say that the Norwegians are building theirs—they are not, actually. They are being put out to international competition and are being built in South Korea. Australia and New Zealand have taken the same approach as us. We have been clear that a warship is as characterised in the national shipbuilding strategy.

It is not a warship by definition, for the simple reason that the definition is based on the UK’s requirement to retain the ability to design, build and integrate frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers for reasons of national security, ensuring that the complex nature of the construct is an important part of it from the very beginning. We will continue to have this argument—unions are coming to meet me very soon to discuss it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North East again on securing the debate. I will constantly review this matter and take it on board, but the Ministry of Defence has made a decision. I assure him that we are doing everything we can to ensure that our industry, whether in maritime, on land or in the air, is there to compete on the global stage, to secure the jobs we need and the expertise we have in the UK.

I thank the Minister for his reply and thank right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed so effectively to the debate. In reply to the Minister’s last remark about the need to maintain the UK’s sovereign capability to build complex warships being arbitrarily restricted to frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers, the only reason we can build those ships in the UK today is that the last Labour Government placed an order for an auxiliary ship, the RFA Wave Ruler, at Govan shipyard in 1999, which enabled that yard to continue in operation. Also, there are five River class batch 2 patrol vessels being built at Govan to sustain production there until the Type 26 kicks in. By utilising those less complex, but none the less complex, warships to smooth the build cycle, we can retain the skills, infrastructure and critical mass we need to build complex warships including frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers. We must look beyond that arbitrary restriction and maximise the purchasing power of the Ministry of Defence to deliver UK sovereign capability in the long term. We should broaden our horizons.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered UK sovereign capability.

Sitting adjourned.