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Type 31 Frigate

Volume 782: debated on Monday 3 April 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will have to cut the first steel on the Type 31 frigate that will replace the last Type 23 when it pays off on its due date.

My Lords, in the SDSR we committed to maintaining the Royal Navy’s frigate and destroyer fleet of 19 warships and to increasing it by the 2030s. This included our commitment to the Type 26 and Type 31E general purpose frigate. We will provide further detail on the plans for the Type 31E in the national shipbuilding strategy, which will be published in spring 2017.

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his Answer, but I am rather disappointed. It seems extraordinary that the noble Earl, whose illustrious ancestor raised the siege of Gibraltar, had not told his noble friend Lord Howard about the parlous state of our Armed Forces before his comments on Sunday. The noble Earl quite rightly said that the Government are committed to there being more frigates. I cannot see how that can occur by 2035, by which time the oldest of the Type 23s will be 35 years old. Does he agree that a steady drumbeat of orders is absolutely necessary, because we will then have sufficient escorts to do what is required by this nation? It will drive down costs and make those ships easier to buy and to sell abroad; we will have much greater capability, innovation and growth of skills within our industries.

My Lords, all the latter points made by the noble Lord are well made and I agree with him. The steady drumbeat was a point emphasised by Sir John Parker in his advice to the Government. I hope the noble Lord will not have long to wait for the national shipbuilding strategy. It will provide further detail on how and when the Type 31 will be procured and how this will align with the Type 23 frigate replacement programme and the Type 26 build programme.

My Lords, as we do not have a Type 31 and do not know yet what tonnage it will be, I cannot answer my noble friend’s question. However, I do not anticipate any problems with docking in Gibraltar.

My Lords, does this Question not get to the heart of the fact that our defence budget is woefully underfunded at present? We would not be discussing the number of frigates and destroyers if that were not the case. At the time of Brexit, and in the wider context of NATO, is there not a case for this country showing leadership in taking responsibility for security in Europe by increasing our defence spending, perhaps by rebalancing between the 2% of GDP spent on defence and the 0.7% spent on international development?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. That was indeed a point that came out loud and clear from the recent defence debate we had in your Lordships’ House. However, the UK is leading the way in NATO. Our defence budget is considerably more than 2% at the moment, which is the NATO target. There are, however, other European members of NATO whose defence spending does not even reach 1%. Therefore, I agree that there is a lot of ground to make up with our allies. However, in our case I remind the House that we have a budget over the next 10 years of £178 billion to invest in equipment and support, which is no mean sum.

My Lords, the plans to build the Type 31 frigate are welcome and indeed interesting. However, that does not hide the fact that once the Type 23s are out of service, the size of the fleet will be at a historic low. Would the Minister tell the House what is now determined to be a minimum fleet size and, indeed, configuration, and whether there is any contingency for delays in the Type 31 construction?

My Lords, there are a number of assumptions in the noble Baroness’s question, which I will not be in a position to answer until we publish the national shipbuilding strategy. I do not accept her hypothesis that the size of the fleet in the 2030s will be smaller than it is today. Indeed, it is our ambition to make it larger.

When can we expect a clear, authoritative and detailed statement on what is wrong with the Type 45 and what is being done about it?

My Lords, a study was done in 2011 substantially to rectify the propulsion problems in the Type 45. Those problems have largely been addressed, although not completely. We will initiate Project Napier, which will deal with the propulsion problems once and for all. However, my advice is that the Type 45 destroyers are not now encountering the difficulties that they were.

Can my noble friend tell us how many frigates and destroyers will be needed to escort one of our aircraft carriers when it is finally deployed?

It depends whose frigates and destroyers one is talking about, because we are in an alliance and no doubt we will depend on those frigates and destroyers of other allies as well as our own.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned publication of the strategy in the spring of 2017. Is this not the spring? Are we not in April now?

My Lords, a commitment was made to the Steel Council regarding the effectiveness of government purchasing guidelines. Sections that British Steel produces in Scunthorpe in my area and Teesside play a valuable part in the supply chain. By updating our procurement approach on major projects, we are now creating a level playing field for UK steel. Does the Minister agree that, despite the hard work of government, industry and trade unions, more work needs to be done to ensure that returns improve further in the coming months and years to compete with China and elsewhere in the world?

My Lords, my noble friend makes some extremely important points about the steel industry in this country. It is worth reflecting that if one looks at the Queen Elizabeth carrier programme, 88% of the steel that went into that carrier programme was from British steel mills, which indicates that we are competitive in world terms.

My Lords,

“Our national security and our economic security go hand-in-hand”.

I am not quoting from the Prime Minister’s letter to Donald Tusk—those were the opening words of the MoD’s single departmental plan in 2015. Promoting defence exports was the clear objective. Sir John Parker, whom the Minister has already quoted, and who wrote the national shipbuilding strategy, said that not enough went into the export market for ships, and that the Type 31E would have export potential. He added that they should be built “urgently”. Is it not therefore a no-brainer? Should we not follow Sir John’s advice, build the ships our Navy needs now, and gain the export opportunities for British shipbuilders?

My Lords, Sir John made some very compelling recommendations, which we are seriously addressing. Broadly, they were to inject greater grip and pace into procurement and construction of ships, to make the Government a better customer, to make industry a stronger and more efficient supplier, and to create scope for exports in warship building, thus feeding into the prosperity agenda. Those were all very sensible recommendations.