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Royal Navy: Warships

Volume 788: debated on Thursday 1 February 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the work being undertaken by the National Security Adviser has led to any changes to the planned paying off of any Royal Navy warships.

My Lords, no, it has not. As the noble Lord will be aware, the national security capability review will be published in late spring. Meanwhile, we have launched the modernising defence programme to make sure that our Armed Forces are able to meet the intensifying threats that this country faces.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I have to say that I am rather surprised, because the whole reason for the review was that the threat is greater and more diverse than it was before. When one adds to that Brexit and its implications for our territorial seas and exclusive economic zone, it would seem that making any decisions about paying off ships that have already been decided would be rather foolhardy, not least because of the recent NAO report on the MoD equipment plan showing that there is no money there at all for the five frigates that have been much trumpeted. Would it be possible to go back to the MoD and look at the possibility of not paying ships off and selling them but rather holding them in reserve until we have finally come to a conclusion about the threats and what is required, so that in an emergency they could be regenerated and used by our nation?

My Lords, I understand the point that the noble Lord is making, but he will recognise that putting any equipment, whether ships or not, into mothballs carries a cost with it. If he is referring to HMS “Ocean”, I am afraid that the decision not to extend her life has been taken and she will decommission this year as planned. But the noble Lord is right in substance: the aim of the modernising defence programme is to make sure that defence across the piece is sustainable, affordable and configured to address the threats that we face—and I am sure that he shares those aims.

Does my noble friend agree that in the modernisation programme it is extremely important that close attention is paid to recruitment? Will he confirm that that is being given high priority in the work that is being attended to at the moment?

Yes, my Lords. As my noble friend is well aware, there are concerns about recruitment in all three armed services. There is no single reason for that. Some of it is attributable to the buoyant employment climate in the economy as a whole, but that is not the whole reason. This is a matter of constant attention by the service chiefs.

My Lords, perhaps I might press the Minister on the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord West. If the integrity of the modernisation is to be preserved, no decisions can be taken that will affect capability between now and the conclusions of that review. Should not the principle of “nothing is decided until everything is decided” rule the Government’s position here?

No, my Lords. The Ministry of Defence will continue to take decisions in parallel with the programme that is now in train. Where significant decisions need to be taken, their impact on the modernising defence programme and their relationship with it will of course be considered.

My Lords, the Navy is in the process of taking delivery of five Batch 2 offshore patrol vessels. These will displace four earlier vessels, one of which, HMS “Severn”, has already been decommissioned. She is only 15 years old. Will the Minister undertake to examine future uses for these versatile vessels, which might include Border Force or Royal Naval Reserve duties to augment our coastal and fisheries protection?

I am grateful to the noble Earl for those suggestions, which I am sure will be noted by the department. But the modernising defence programme that is now in train is the body of work that will settle the specifics of what we require to meet our defence needs. As I have said, its aim is to ensure that we have defence that is sustainable, affordable and configured to address all the threats that we face.

My Lords, can the Minister say what discussions his colleagues have had with Commonwealth navies about the building, deployment and operation of warships? Does he accept that, while frigates are very valuable to our powered defence strength, they are also a major transmission of our influence and soft power across the globe?

My noble friend is entirely right. We have regular discussions with our Commonwealth partners in particular and also with our NATO allies, in the light of the national shipbuilding strategy which, as he knows, is designed to ensure that we once again a competitive and vibrant shipbuilding industry in this country.

My Lords, we have had report after report and promise after promise. Why should we have any faith in any of them? Yesterday, fortuitously for me—but not for the Minister—the National Audit Office produced its annual Ministry of Defence equipment plan report. Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said:

“The Department’s Equipment Plan is not affordable. At present the affordability gap ranges from a minimum of £4.9bn to £20.8bn if financial risks materialise and ambitious savings are not achieved”.

When reading the report, I got as far as page 14, on costs not included in the plan:

“As a consequence of the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015, the Department introduced a number of new equipment commitments into the Plan. The Department was unable to demonstrate that all equipment requirements are now included within the Plan. We”—

that is, the National Audit Office, the highest analysing body in the land—

“have established that the Plan does not include the costs of buying five Type 31e frigates”.

If there is an error of that order of magnitude in the plan, how can we have any faith in anything that comes out in the next few weeks or months?

My Lords, we have been quite open about the pressures that we face. The defence equipment plan summary, published yesterday, acknowledged that the equipment plan emerging from the MoD’s current year budget contains a high level of financial risk and an imbalance between cost and budget. It is exactly those risks and imbalances that we aim to resolve in the programme that is now under way.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in answer to a parliamentary Question in the other place from SNP MP Ronnie Cowan, the Ministry of Defence said that it had spent more than £100 million on a study to explore options for a potential future warhead and whether to refurbish or replace? The noble Lord, Lord West, told me that he would have done it for much less money. Did the Ministry of Defence consider that option?

I am sure that the Ministry of Defence could well have done with the advice of the noble Lord, Lord West, in this context—which we, too, are always keen to have. But I can assure the noble Baroness that, in all work undertaken by my department, cost-effectiveness and affordability are key.