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Royal Navy: Frigates

Volume 777: debated on Thursday 8 December 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the publication of the National Shipbuilding Strategy, when they intend to replace the Type 23 Frigates.

My Lords, eight Type 26 global combat ships will be built to replace the current eight anti-submarine warfare Type 23 frigates on a one-for-one basis. The build schedule for the Type 26 is being addressed as part of ongoing contractual negotiations. As announced in the SDSR, the general purpose Type 23 frigates will be replaced by a new class of lighter, flexible, exportable general purpose frigates. This project is in its pre-concept phase.

I thank the noble Earl for his Answer. He has told me on the Floor of this House on at least two occasions that a report on shipbuilding would come out this autumn which would lay down a steady drum beat of orders. Sir John Parker’s report has no financial basis—there is no detail there of a drum beat of orders—and now, as I understand it, the shipbuilding report will come out next spring. I know from my time in government that spring can be as late as July. Is it still our Government’s intention to increase frigate numbers by the 2030s, which is not far away in shipbuilding terms, and how will they achieve that with regard to these general purpose frigates? How quickly will they need to be built to achieve that figure?

My Lords, yes, it is the Government’s intention to increase the size of the fleet through the general purpose frigate. We are talking now in the long term, but that is our intention. As the noble Lord is aware, we published Sir John Parker’s report on 29 November. It contains 34 detailed recommendations, and it is not unreasonable that the Government should take a little while to give those recommendations due thought. Some of them are pretty adventurous, but all of them are designed to ensure that we can in the long term deliver growth to the fleet, which we all want.

My Lords, the naval procurement budget, as well as the whole defence budget, has been entirely skewed by the purchase of these two magnificent QE-class carriers, which we look forward to coming into service. Will my noble friend agree that it is important that we learn the lessons of the profligacy of a decade ago with a long-term view, so that the defence budget is not in future skewed with the damaging effects that the noble Lord has just mentioned?

I am not sure that I entirely agree with my noble friend that the defence budget has been unduly skewed. Of course we understand that the carriers are expensive ships, but they are also good investments. To balance the carriers there is the programme for the new Type 26 global combat ship, the Dreadnought and Astute-class submarines, offshore patrol vessels and, in the longer term, as I said, the lighter general purpose frigate. Therefore we can see a good balance of shipbuilding over the years ahead.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a sponsor of the magnificent HMS “Somerset”. With the replacements the Minister has mentioned, there will still be only 19 warships. Will he agree that with so few hulls remaining in the water, the greater should be the spread of capabilities of these replacements to be flexible in their employment? How will this be assured with the replacements—the Type 26 and the Type 31—particularly with reference to anti-surface capabilities?

The great thing about the Type 31 concept is that it will be adaptable and flexible to meet any given type of requirement, and because of that it will also be exportable. This is where we will get into what we all hope will be a steady drum beat of shipbuilding, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord West. However, I should make it clear that no decisions have been taken about the precise number of general purpose warships. We believe that there will be at least five for the Royal Navy. This ship will be crucial to the UK’s warship-building industry and will form an important part of the national shipbuilding strategy.

My Lords, Sir John Parker has called for disciplined governance processes in the design and specification of the new frigates. Will the Minister therefore tell the House why we should feel confident now, when there has been such a history of failure?

My Lords, we will be replying to Sir John’s report in due course. However, he has identified a renaissance in shipbuilding that is emerging in a range of regional companies where he has found an entrepreneurial attitude and an enthusiasm to embrace change. We should be encouraged by that. We need to bottom out those assumptions but we certainly respect the conclusions that Sir John has drawn.

My Lords, we welcome Sir John Parker’s report on the national shipbuilding strategy, but does the Minister accept his concern about the existing government policy? He said that fewer, more expensive ships are ordered too late and old ships are retained in service well beyond their sell-by date at a high cost, and that this “vicious cycle”—his words—is depleting the Royal Navy at a great cost to the taxpayer. Sir John urged the speedy construction of new ships, saying that the Navy is being depleted at a rapid pace. In response to my noble friend Lord West of Spithead, the Minister said that the Government would respond next spring. However, in view of the comment that spring could be a little late next year, can he assure us that it will not be that late?

I assure the noble Lord that it will not be that late. It is true that the procurement performance of the Ministry of Defence, which lagged for many years, has improved in recent years, as we know from the NAO reports and elsewhere. However, we also knew that surface ship procurement was problematic. That is precisely why we asked Sir John to undertake his work in the first instance, and he has given us some very encouraging pointers.

My Lords, can my noble friend assure me that, in the event that the Argentinians were so foolish as to attempt another invasion of the Falkland Islands, we would currently have, and in future will have, the capacity to act in the way that we did on the last occasion that such an effort was made?

The difference between now and 1982 is that we are more than sufficiently prepared for any such action by the Argentinians.