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UK Shipbuilding

Volume 709: debated on Thursday 3 March 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Alan Mak.)

It is great to speak to a packed House.

It is a great honour to be able to open this important debate about the future of UK shipbuilding. I am very glad to see the Minister in his place. I know from our previous encounters the depth of expertise and passion that he brings to this debate, and I look forward to hearing his contribution later. I also declare an interest. I am a long-standing member and former north-west regional secretary of Unite the union, which organises workers in the shipbuilding sector, including in my own constituency.

With the national shipbuilding strategy refresh expected shortly, the timing of this debate could not be more appropriate. It is a document that is keenly anticipated across the entirety of the sector and has the potential to define the landscape of British shipbuilding for decades to come. I am sure the Minister knows just how important it is that the Government’s plans live up to the lofty rhetoric of the Defence Secretary and the Prime Minister.

Only yesterday, I had the pleasure of taking my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), the shadow Minister for defence procurement, on a tour of the historic Cammell Laird shipyards in my constituency. It was clear to see the immense pride which every member of the team took in their work, from the stagers to the shipwrights and the senior management. They have much to be proud of. After a challenging few decades for the whole of the industry, Cammell Laird enters the 2020s with a reputation for being at the forefront of innovation in British shipbuilding and for having delivered some of the most technologically advanced vessels afloat. From its slipways sailed the RRS Sir David Attenborough —commonly known as Boaty McBoat or whatever—one of the most sophisticated research vessels ever built. As we speak, that ship is battling perilous Antarctic waters, following in the wake of the Erebus and Endurance, and gathering vital data about the impact of climate breakdown on the polar regions. Capable of operating in temperatures as low as minus 40° and equipped with state-of-the-art equipment to study the deepest depths of the ocean, the SDA is a marvel of British engineering in which all of Birkenhead can take pride.

Cammell Laird also continues to play an enormously important role in the local economy. It is easily the largest employer in our town, employing 650 well-paid and unionised workers, with a further 1,500 subcontractors active on the site. Its Marine Engineering College continues to offer high-quality apprenticeships to around 50 people each year across every discipline, with a commitment to doubling that number in years to come. These apprenticeships are so highly valued that last year 880 applications were made for just 25 positions. The shipyard’s success is being felt far beyond the shipyard walls, with £400 million spent in the wider supply chain in the last five years alone, including £130 million in the immediate locality, supporting over 300 local businesses. But for all the passion, enthusiasm, and commitment that I witnessed yesterday, there is still a sense that the glory days are, at least for now, behind us.

Once the shipyards towered over the skyline of our town, as iconic and powerful a symbol of Birkenhead as the Three Graces are still for neighbouring Liverpool. No more. The time when a young person could reasonably expect to walk out of the school gates and into secure, lifelong work at Cammell Laird is long gone. My mother, father and three of my brothers all learned their trades in the yards. Like so many others of my generation, my future and that of my family’s was entwined with the future of British industry. There is probably not a single young person living in our country today who can say the same.

The story of Cammell Laird has been replicated time and again not only in shipbuilders up and down our country but in our foundries, forges and factories. Government Members have told us that the destruction of British industry was inevitable and that we had no choice but to bow to the inexorable tides of history, but, as the UK was cutting its shipyards adrift, Governments in Spain, South Korea and Italy were investing in their shipbuilders, and today they are unrivalled anywhere else in the world.

After many years of decline and industrial neglect, the Government’s recognition that change is needed was warmly welcome. So, too was the decision to expand the scope of the national shipbuilding strategy with the upcoming refresh, but if the Defence Secretary is to earn his title of shipbuilding tsar, it is time for him to prove his commitment to revitalising UK shipyards and building a brighter future for this critical industry. I fear that the cracks in his resolve are already beginning to show.

In December 2020, I held a Westminster Hall debate on defence procurement and was glad to hear the Minister agree that the historic increases in defence spending announced in that year’s spending review should be used to support domestic manufacturers and British jobs and skills. On that day, I also sought a commitment from him that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s new fleet solid support ships would be designed and built in their entirety in Britain. That is a fundamental test of the Government’s commitment to British shipbuilding, and the signs so far are not promising.

Leading figures in the defence sector, including Sir John Parker, have repeatedly called for the need to recognise social value when commissioning new defence projects such as the fleet solid support ships, but despite classifying these new vessels as warships, the Secretary of State has failed to provide a cast-iron guarantee that they will be built in their entirety in Britain.

The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling case. Indeed, we have never constructed sovereign warships outside the United Kingdom and it would be a retrograde step for so many different reasons if we were to do so. We must, however, have a shipbuilding industry that goes beyond the construction of warships, where different procurement rules apply. Does he share my frustration at the way in which the Scottish Government’s mismanagement of Ferguson shipyard in Greenock has so fundamentally undermined confidence in the prospect of a non-warship shipbuilding industry in this country?

The right hon. Member makes a good point. As well as building for defence procurement, we should be building commercial vessels.

The terms of the competition dictate that the FSS need only be “integrated” in the UK, which means that the lion’s share of the work could be offshored, with British shipbuilders losing out on vital work at a critical time. That would be a tragic betrayal of British shipyards and the thousands of workers that they support.

The Minister will no doubt be aware of my enthusiasm for the bid put forward by Team UK, a consortium of British firms including Cammell Laird, Rolls-Royce, Babcock and BAE Systems. In fact, in the last two years I have inundated his Department with correspondence demanding that the contract be awarded to the consortium, which would truly represent the very best of British engineering, and I repeat my call today. If the Government are serious about supporting shipbuilding, Team UK must be awarded the bid. The benefits are obvious. Instead of allowing non-domestic firms to benefit from billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, we could create or secure at least 6,700 jobs in British industry, including 2,000 in the shipyards, while seeing £285 million of the total spend returned to Treasury coffers through income tax, national insurance contributions and lower welfare payments.

It is also imperative that the revised shipbuilding strategy looks at the wider issue of procurement. For years, Ministers have waxed lyrical about the extraordinary economic benefits that Brexit would bring, but, instead of the Government taking advantage of our departure from the European Union to throw their full weight behind British shipbuilders, they continue needlessly to follow procurement rules that force businesses such as Cammell Laird to compete with state-owned giants including Spain’s Navantia. It is a David-versus-Goliath struggle. Even when British shipbuilders are in the running for lucrative defence projects, Ministers too often expect them to shoulder enormous financial risks, including 100% refund guarantees that many British shipyards can ill afford.

Let me be clear. UK shipbuilders are not looking for handouts, nor are they asking for taxpayers’ money to be wasted. They know all too well the importance of delivering value for money; they just want a level playing field. They are absolutely right to say that a more benign contracting environment is badly needed if we are to achieve the shipbuilding renaissance that Ministers have repeatedly promised. I hope that when the NSS refresh is published, it will include a recognition that the Ministry of Defence must begin to accept more responsibility for the financial risks inherent in commissioning the top-end vessels that the Select Committee on Defence has identified as so vital to guaranteeing our national security in the deeply uncertain years ahead.

As I said, the shipbuilding strategy has the potential to define the future of British shipbuilding for decades to come, but if shipyards across the country are to make the investment in recruitment and training that they so desperately want to make, they will need guarantees of work in the short term as well. It is not good enough to tell firms that things will get better in 10 years’ time, when so many yards are confronting enormous challenges here and now. We need action now to stem the exodus of jobs and skills from the sector and lay the solid foundations that will be essential if the shipbuilding strategy is to be delivered in full. I hope that the Minister will speak about that issue today.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that the resources and commitment that we have given to Royal Navy procurement are a real step change and exactly the kind of support that he expects to see delivered to UK shipyards.

I accept the point about the budget for defence and for shipbuilding, but when the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities travelled to my constituency recently, he opted not to visit Cammell Laird. Perhaps he knew that the Government are falling far short in providing shipbuilders with the support that they need; perhaps he knew the welcome he was likely to receive from a workforce who have been failed by central Government for far too long. If levelling up is to become more than an empty slogan, we must recognise the enormous potential of British industry, and of shipbuilding in particular, to drive inward investment, create high-skilled work and build a more prosperous future for left-behind towns like Birkenhead.

As a lifelong trade unionist, I have spoken primarily about what investing in the future of UK shipbuilding means for British workers and industry, but national security must not be ignored. The stakes could not be higher. Putin’s appalling attack on the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine has shattered the peace that our continent has enjoyed for so long and has caused human suffering on a scale that none of us thought we would see again. We simply do not know what the future holds, but the appalling scenes that we are witnessing on the streets of Kyiv and Kharkiv are a powerful reminder of just how important it is that we build up our defence capacity at home. That must begin in our nation’s shipyards.

Once again, I urge the Minister to do everything in his power to ensure that fleet solid support ships and all future defence projects in the pipeline are built and designed in their entirety in the UK. That is the very least that our shipyards deserve.

May I start by picking up on the remarks that the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) made about Ukraine? His points were well made. In preparing for this important debate, I could not help thinking about my visits to Ukraine on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, which have included discussions about that proud country’s ambitions for its navy and for its shipbuilding enterprises. We are all deeply concerned; our thoughts are with all Ukrainians. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made those remarks.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He spoke passionately about what the industry has meant to his family, to him and to his community. I know that he speaks from the heart. I am glad that we have had this opportunity to speak before the launch of the shipbuilding refresh; I hope that we will speak again when it is brought before the House.

Shipbuilding is not only important to the hon. Gentleman, but vital to the United Kingdom. As he mentioned, his constituency has produced many of our finest ships. The first screw steamship to cross the Atlantic and the first guided missile destroyer in the UK were made in Birkenhead. So was the RSS Sir David Attenborough—I will stick with that name, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind—which is rightly a source of huge pride for Birkenhead as it does its important work in the Antarctic, even as we speak. I was pleased to hear about the number of applications—although I would like there to be more work for more of them—for the training scheme to work in the yard. It is one of the many brilliant training schemes around the country, and I am delighted that the work that we are all putting in for a successful future for our shipbuilding industry is being reflected in the enthusiasm of people coming forward to take those opportunities.

As a maritime nation, ships have long been the guarantors of our defence, the deliverers of our trade and the creators of endless opportunities for growth and expansion. However, we are conscious that the sector needs to be more resilient and more sustainable if it is to thrive in the 21st century as it has done historically. That is why the Defence Secretary was appointed shipbuilding tsar in September 2019. He has gathered the Government together to drive the renaissance in British shipbuilding and to enhance our position as a global leader in ship design and technology. Since his appointment, we have opened the National Shipbuilding Office, which is working closely with industry to drive transformative change across the whole of our shipbuilding enterprise.

We have brought forward plans through the integrated review and defence Command Paper to double Royal Navy investment in its new vessels to £1.7 billion per annum by the end of this Parliament, delivering the defence that the hon. Gentleman speaks of. We have confirmed our commitments for Type 26, Type 31 and fleet solid support ships, and set out our ambition, including for multi-role support ships and Type 32, among other future procurements. We have changed our policy to ensure that all new Royal Navy vessels, not just aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates, are actively considered for build, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said. Having sovereign capacity in our country for delivering our own defence needs is absolutely critical. He was right to allude to that. Through the application of social value to tenders, we are making clear the vital importance of driving wider value for the long-term success of our shipbuilding industry.

On exports, I am the first Minister for Defence Procurement in a generation who can help drive success not just in complex warships such as the Type 26, where we are working so closely with our Australian and Canadian friends, but in highly effective vessels such as Arrowhead, or Type 31, and offshore patrol vessels, with contracts already being awarded and opportunities to pursue them globally.

Learning the lessons of the Parker review, to which the hon. Member for Birkenhead referred, our task is to ensure that the existing success of warship procurement in this country is matched with a renaissance that works across the sector. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to the need for us to have successful commercial entities. He is absolutely right. I do a huge amount of work with the Scottish yards, whose input into the defence industry is absolutely vital. It is a pity that he is the only Member from a Scottish constituency present, because we could have had further discussions, but we are talking about the entire UK shipbuilding industry. It is spread right the way across the United Kingdom, and it is important that all of it thrives. I agree with his sentiments.

We will very soon be setting out our plans to go even further, with the publication of our refreshed national shipbuilding strategy. I have no doubt that this strategy will benefit not just our shipyards but the 1,685 registered businesses in this industry spread right across the UK, 99% of which are small and medium-sized enterprises. Our plans have been developed through extensive collaboration with industry, including businesses in the constituency of the hon. Member for Birkenhead, such as Cammell Laird. I would like to thank them for their insight and support.

As part of the strategy, we will be providing a 30-year, cross-Government shipbuilding pipeline, with a huge range of opportunities for UK shipyards. There are vessels of all types, sizes and complexity, creating a baseline of volume to encourage industry investment in facilities, infrastructure, innovation and skills. That means that they will also be geared up to win commercial and export orders as major new global markets emerge, particularly in green shipping.

Given the vast Government order book, other domestic orders and the export prospects being supported by the Department for International Trade, and with the National Shipbuilding Office seeking to maximise UK work wherever possible, I am convinced that British shipyards are likely to be very busy in the coming years.

While the upcoming strategy extends to all types of Government vessels, at its heart remains an ambition to keep strengthening the Royal Navy, and a critical part of that is our fleet solid support ships, to which the hon. Member for Birkenhead referred. That came as no great surprise; I know that this is a subject close to his heart. These ships will not just be a vital part of our formidable future force alongside our new Type 31 frigates, our two magnificent carriers, our next-generation nuclear submarines, our mine-hunting ships and our multi-role support ships; they are also a great example of how taxpayers’ money is being invested in a way that ensures the long-term future of UK shipbuilding.

Our commitment to the fleet solid support programme was outlined in the defence Command Paper published this time last year, and it is supported by the £24 billion uplift to the defence budget over four years. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this project will be delivered very much in line with the new strategy. In other words, it will encourage sustainable investment to ensure the long-term future of our domestic shipyards. I know he will appreciate the fact that, as we are in the midst of a competitive process, I am limited in what I can say, but we have designed the competition to emulate the success of the ongoing Type 31 frigate programme in Rosyth. This means that while we welcome the opportunity to learn from international best practice, we have also been very clear that a substantial proportion of the build, including integration, will be carried out in the UK. We have had a very positive response from industry, and each of the four consortia bidding for the programme includes substantial UK involvement. The bidders are also required to set out plans to help improve the capacity and capability of the UK shipbuilding sector, as well as how they will contribute to wider social value.

On the question of the future strategy, we know that shipping is going to have to tackle its carbon emissions, and some of the most exciting and innovative work in that sector is now being done in relation to hydrogen as a source of power for ferries and other seagoing vessels. Will that sort of future-proofing be part of the Government’s strategy?

The right hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not reveal the full details of the strategy in this packed Chamber this evening, but I can absolutely assure him that it will cover future-proofing and the future of UK shipbuilding. I have mentioned the greener path ahead for the industry, and for shipping in general, and we absolutely wish to embrace that. I look forward to having an opportunity to say more to him about this.

The fleet solid support strategy will create a further major stepping stone to success for our vital shipbuilding industry so that our shipyards will be ready to win work beyond the life of this project, whether that is for Government vessels of any kind, for foreign exports or for domestic orders.

There is a rich and potent future for the industry, and we will be embracing the trends that will make for a successful industry. I hope that I have been able to reassure the hon. Member for Birkenhead, knowing that he would raise the matter, that the fleet solid support programme is being delivered in line with our wider aims to make the sector more competitive and more sustainable. I hope that I have also been clear that we will take every opportunity we can, not just to increase jobs, bolster skills and secure export contracts in the coming months and years, but to truly ensure that we are bringing shipbuilding home. My colleagues and I look forward to being able to commend to the hon. Gentleman and to this House a refreshed national shipbuilding strategy in what I can assure him will be the very near term.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.