My Lords, the new national flagship will boost British trade and drive investment into our economy. The national flagship will be built in UK shipyards, creating both jobs and upskilling opportunities. It will play an important role in delivering the vision we will set out in a national shipbuilding strategy refresh, to be published later this year. The cost of the national flagship will be confirmed once we have concluded market engagement.
My Lords, I see that the Government have already downgraded the proposed boat from a royal yacht to a national flagship. As the department has been lumbered with the responsibility for this extravagant folly, will she say what contribution she expects the boat to make to our defence—and I mean defence—capability? Will the department be fully compensated for the cost?
I am somewhat saddened by the noble Lord’s lacklustre attitude, because this is an exciting prospect for British shipbuilding, our skills base in that industry and the supply chain. It is opening a new chapter in our global engagement focus on trade, investment and British jobs. The MoD is responsible for the national flagship because our Secretary of State is the shipbuilding tsar, and more than any other government department we have significant experience in building ships. This new ship will be an innovative maritime mobile trade ambassador.
My Lords, when such captains of industry as the successful business luminary, the late Sir Donald Gosling—who reportedly bequeathed some £50 million to the replacement of the royal yacht “Britannia”—see the sense in promoting Britain in the world, particularly as we seek new trading partners, does the Minister agree that the benefits of such a vessel will be invaluable?
The case for the new national flagship is not just well made, it is self-evident. It reflects the determination of this Government to do everything we can to boost investment in the UK economy, to create more jobs in the United Kingdom and to ensure that we have a facilitator in the form of this new flagship to engage meaningfully with global partners.
My Lords, this is another vanity project by the Prime Minister, just like his £53 million garden bridge and the £5.2 million estuary airport. Does the Minister agree that the proposed £200 million would generate more jobs by feeding hungry schoolchildren during the summer break, tackling domestic violence or hiring 6,600 new nurses?
The duty of government is to make decisions and judgments. It is the judgment of this Government that the creation of and investment in the new national flagship is a very substantial means of enhancing global engagement, with the specific intention of improving trade relations and identifying and inviting potential global customers to invest in the UK, create jobs and thereby create the wealth and expenditure for the very worthy purposes to which he has referred.
My Lords, there might be all sorts of very good reasons to have a national flagship, but will the Minister tell the House what the benefit of this to defence is going to be? How does she envisage naval staff being available to equip the ship?
In common with all government departments, the MoD wishes to play its role in supporting the Government. The noble Baroness will be aware that the carrier strike group is currently conducting an important mission overseas, and that is attracting interest from a variety of sources, not least those who wish to engage with us globally with a view to looking at trade opportunities. This proposal complements that approach. Manning the flagship will be a Royal Navy responsibility, but that will be factored into our existing commitments.
My Lords, will the Minister comment on whether, in the light of government borrowing being so high at £303 billion following the Covid pandemic, the money to be spent on a new royal yacht is money that we cannot spare at the moment and the project should be delayed accordingly?
My Lords—[Inaudible]— the estimated bill cost for the new national flagship, it is unhelpful to refer to this as a royal yacht. In concept, purpose and function, the flagship is completely different. The estimated bill cost is less than 0.1% of the defence budget over the next four years, and that will be met from within the defence settlement. We are satisfied that that can be comfortably accommodated.
My Lords, it is both disappointing and shocking that the Minister has now confirmed that the capital costs of building the flagship will be met from the defence budget. Does the Minister not understand that the core of the objections from many Lords in this debate is that the money is coming from the defence budget? If the Government are determined to go ahead with this, would it not be better for the MoD’s money to be spent not on this prime ministerial vanity project but on another maritime patrol aircraft or frigate? That is the nub of the questions that the Minister is being asked: why is this a priority for the MoD?
As I indicated, the MoD is one government department but we operate in conjunction with others. We consider it our duty to support these other government departments in their respective obligations and missions. As I also indicated earlier, the MoD spend on shipbuilding will double to over £1.7 billion a year over the life of this Parliament, while the national flagship is less than 0.1% of that defence budget over the next four years.
My Lords, I would like to explore why the MoD is the right department to take forward this vanity project. When we debated its record on procurement a couple of weeks ago, we heard that the 400 tanks it had ordered cannot reverse, cannot go forward very fast and cannot fire on the move. The staff inside also had to be changed every hour and a half because it was too noisy. Why is the MoD the right department to procure this, rather than the business department?
As I indicated on a previous question, the Defence Secretary is the Government’s shipbuilding tsar and the MoD’s role as the lead department for this project reflects our knowledge and experience in shipbuilding and procurement. That has been a very active part of our defence engagement and continues to be so, with a really proud and substantial shipbuilding programme in process.
My Lords, if this is to be primarily concerned with promoting international trade, should it not be funded by the Department for International Trade? Since that department is concerned about the tip towards the Pacific, it would be absurd to base this ship in Britain. Will it be based at Bahrain, Diego Garcia or Singapore? Lastly, since this is a pet project of the Prime Minister, do the Government plan to name the ship Dilyn?
There may be much speculation about the name of the ship but it is premature to discuss that just now. It will be announced in due course. The noble Lord makes an important point about the underlying purpose and function of this flagship. He is quite right that it is to be mobile and a maritime asset. Many of the major cities in the world with which we wish to engage for trade purposes are coastal; he is therefore correct that we anticipate this vessel’s role to be mobile. It will go to where the need is and where we wish to engage, at the time we wish to undertake that engagement.
My Lords, everybody wants to boost British shipbuilders, but does the Minister not agree that other ways of doing it are more relevant for the purposes of our defence? The Minister talked about investment and boosting trade. Is not this whole project a vote of no confidence in the good work that our embassies and consulates do throughout the world? Is it not a way of saying, “You’re not good enough—we’re going to find a different way of doing it”?
I disagree with that last assessment by the noble Lord. This is entirely complementary to what we currently do with our Diplomatic Service and through our trade ambassadors and trade emissaries—an added facilitator to help support these important endeavours. It is all about finding investment and orders for the UK, boosting UK jobs and bringing that investment to this country. That is a collective government responsibility and I therefore anticipate that this vessel, although being built under the aegis of the MoD, will be operated and work closely in conjunction with our overall government endeavours and ambitions.