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Naval Warships: Repair at Sea

Volume 774: debated on Tuesday 13 September 2016


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what arrangements will be in place for the repair of naval warships at sea following the proposed sale of RFA “Diligence”.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Trefgarne and at his request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, RFA “Diligence”, the forward repair ship, is one part of a system providing support facilities to deployed ships and submarines. This support is regularly supplemented by commercial arrangements and international agreements. When bespoke afloat capabilities are required, these are contracted on the open commercial market. This solution is not dependent on “Diligence” and has proven effective. Of course, we continue to consider all our capability requirements, depending on the operational task.

My Lords, “Diligence” has provided wonderful support to Royal Naval ships. What is the cost of her recent refits and is my noble friend satisfied that her sale will not affect the maintenance of Royal Naval ships when away from home ports?

My Lords, there was a refit of RFA “Diligence” in 2012-13 and another in 2014-15, both driven by mandatory certification requirements. The aggregate cost of those refits was £28.6 million. I reassure my noble friend that the withdrawal from service of RFA “Diligence” will not have a material effect on the support provided to the fleet. We are always considering different and innovative ways of providing that support to deliver the best value for money for the taxpayer. The Royal Navy is confident that, through a combination of the measures that I have outlined, the required support will be available.

My Lords, this news fills me with despair. As late as this spring, the Government said that “Diligence” was invaluable to the Royal Navy, as I know from my own experience. We now have 19 frigates and destroyers; six of those destroyers have intercooler problems. We have not resolved that problem yet and we need to do so. We are using merchant ships—the Royal Fleet Auxiliaries—to do the jobs that warships should do. We have a shortage of manpower and we have ships laid up alongside. We are not fulfilling the tasks that I think our nation would expect us to fulfil. Is it not the case that there is insufficient money to run the naval programme today? Are we not creating an ever-bigger black hole, if I may refer back to that term? We have a very real problem. We will have less ships in the Navy in 2025 than now —I am sorry, we will have fewer; I did go to grammar school but I get my words wrong occasionally—despite what the Government said firmly. After a long interchange between us, the noble Earl admitted that there would be fewer. How many will we have in 2025?

My Lords, the noble Lord made a series of points and asked a series of questions. Of course, there are always acute cost pressures where we have a service at the cutting-edge of excellence, as the Royal Navy is. But there is now a range of ways in which the Royal Navy delivers operational maintenance and repair to the fleet. It can often be, as I am sure the noble Lord knows, through a Royal Navy repair and maintenance party being deployed to a ship or, more likely, as will be the case with the carriers, through the ship’s own personnel and capabilities. In addition, we have well-established commercial arrangements and international agreements, such as the use of other countries’ bases and facilities. I would mention that, due to a successful recruitment campaign, RFA manning is currently on target, with many vacancies oversubscribed.

My Lords, with due respect, I fear that the Minister’s Answer to the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Astor, is somewhat complacent. The fact is that the Navy’s attribute to be deployable worldwide without any host nation support is critical. Where I believe it is complacent is that the noble Earl overlooks what happens in conflict. We are scarred with examples of where allies and international agreements sometimes fall away when we get into conflict situations. RFA “Diligence” may be only one component of our support but it is a critical one, especially for the servicing, maintenance and repair of nuclear submarines, which cannot get into ports where there are no nuclear-cleared berths. Will the Minister please reflect on that and reassure the House that the Ministry of Defence may look at this again?

The House will listen with great respect to the noble and gallant Lord, with his enormous experience. The approach now being taken by the Royal Navy is to upskill our own engineers and give them an opportunity to use their skills. That is a good thing and, to that end, we are working with industry to improve training in diagnostics and repair techniques, which puts the service man and woman at the centre of operational maintenance. I will, however, reflect on the points that the noble and gallant Lord has made.

My Lords, some would argue that the Royal Navy is the most successful fighting force in the history of our country, and high standards of training have ensured that it remains so, despite cuts in personnel, ships, submarines and aircraft. Why, then, on 4 August did the Ministry of Defence slip out an advert seeking expressions of interest and inviting parties to buy RFA “Diligence”, which it described as surplus equipment “in good overall condition”? Will the Minister say how it is surplus when it is our only at-sea repair ship? It should certainly be in good overall condition because we spent £16 million on the last refit. Can the Minister offer us any hope that his department will soon have a long-term strategic approach to defence spending and planning? It would make his life a lot easier as he would not have to keep coming here to defend the indefensible.

My Lords, I assure noble Lords that there is a long-term strategy for the Royal Navy’s expenditure plans. The Royal Navy has declared that “Diligence” is no longer essential to its needs. Over 30 years, it has performed a very useful service to the Royal Navy, but it started life before the Falklands conflict. It is an obsolescent ship. However, the taxpayer will be getting value for it. The sale of “Diligence” will be managed by the Disposal Services Authority, which issued the notice to which the noble Lord referred.

SDSR15 specifically said that the Government would publish a new national shipbuilding strategy in 2016. Can the Minister give us any indication of when we might expect this?

My Lords, Sir John Parker is leading the national shipbuilding strategy. That work is intended to place UK warship building on a sustainable long-term footing. He is considering a range of issues to do that, including that regularly raised by the noble Lord, Lord West, which is a regular drumbeat of warship building.