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Royal Navy: Ships

Volume 823: debated on Wednesday 22 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the recently announced Ocean Surveillance Ship and National Flagship will be built concurrently; and when those vessels are expected to enter service with the Royal Navy.

My Lords, with the new multi-role ocean surveillance programme announced in the defence Command Paper of 2021 currently in its concept phase, and the national flagship programme in its design stage, with a competitive procurement process in progress, it is too early to discuss build arrangements for the two programmes.

My Lords, five years ago the shipbuilding strategy came out, and I was impressed and pleased that the Government seemed to have gripped this very important issue. I said so on the Floor of the House. However, I said to the Minister that many times over the years I had been promised ships and had never stood on their quarterdeck. I have the same feeling with this. We have ordered five frigates since then and not a single other ship. Three years ago, we were told that we were ordering three fleet solid support ships. They are still not ordered. This really worries me. When it comes to these two ships, does the Minister agree that the oceanographic surveillance ship is way more important for our nation and defence than the other ship, because of data links et cetera going across the Atlantic? With the possibility of a world war, it is the sort of thing that Putin would have a go at.

The noble Lord will not be surprised to learn that I do not share his pessimism. I am tempted to ask under which government regime shipbuilding was in such a poor state. Thanks to the national shipbuilding strategy, we now see one of the most exciting programmes in UK shipbuilding for decades. That is recognised in the industry—and in his single service. These are two exciting prospects. As he knows, the MROS will replace HMS “Scott”. I will not say that it is a Trojan horse; it is a sturdy reliable Clydesdale which plods away doing its work. These two boats—

The noble Lord manages to induce a bit of pessimism in me. These two ships are a very important addition to the fleet.

The original budget for the flagship was some £200 million. The Defence Secretary now says that it may be up to £250 million. With inflation running in the shipbuilding pipeline at some 8%, can my noble friend tell your Lordships’ House potentially what the upper limit for that budget would be, for the flagship to continue to offer value for money? Also, when was the last time that the Government or any Government delivered a warship for its original budget?

I will take the last question first. My noble friend is aware that very strict procurement rules now govern MoD procurement, and that the budgets for the Type 26 and Type 31 are very vigilantly watched. On the possible price range for the national flagship I cannot be specific about figures but, to put these sums in perspective, over four years the projected cost amounts to an impact on the defence budget in the region of 0.1%.

My Lords, the ocean surveillance ship has the purpose of safeguarding critical infrastructure in the north Atlantic. When it was announced in March 2021, the service date of 2024 was given, but in a Written Answer last November, the Government said there was no date for entry into service. Why has the service date been allowed to drag in that way? In relation to the national flagship, why is it necessary for a ship whose purpose is to showcase the United Kingdom’s economy, and to boost trade and investment, to be provided from the defence budget? The defence budget is not elastic, although this Government seem to think so.

I remind the noble Lord that the defence budget has one of the biggest settlements, from this Government, that it has seen in decades. That includes a period when the noble Lord was active in support of government. I say to the noble Lord that the MROSS is a technically complicated ship. It is in its concept and assessment phase. He will understand the complicated progress that is then made to the point of being able to talk about initial operating capability, never mind going into service. It is an important addition to the fleet.

On the budget of the national flagship, the national flagship will achieve two things. It will promote the UK in its foreign policy and security objectives, but it will also be an addition to the Royal Navy and, by adopting its soft diplomacy role, it will free up people in the Royal Navy to do other military tasks. It is a very natural addendum to the MoD.

My Lords, I refer to my entry in the register of interests. The whole point of the ocean surveillance ship was to protect critical infrastructure pertaining to our digital capability and communications. I am not disinclined to be optimistic, but it will take some time before we can protect those cables properly. Is there any strategy, or any co-ordination with our allies and NATO, to protect that infrastructure until those ships actually provide it?

As I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord West, we currently have HMS “Scott” continuing to do very important and necessary work. I would not want to give any impression that that infrastructure is not being protected. It is, but what we naturally look to is a replacement and successor for HMS “Scott”.

My Lords, following on from my noble friend Lord West’s Question, I think the House will be disappointed that the Minister said that it was too early to say anything about when the design would take place, when the ordering would take place and when we can expect these two ships to be in operational service. Would the Minister go back to the Ministry of Defence and say that we would like greater clarity on timing of all this? Furthermore, if it is the Government’s intention that these ships are built in Britain, will that be the default position? Should there be one British tender for either or both of these ships that will see them, particularly the national British flagship, built in Britain?

They are very different ships, as the noble Lord will understand. The intention is that the National Shipbuilding Office for the MROSS will seek to maximise the opportunities for UK industry in these programmes, but within the boundaries of our international legal obligations. As he is aware, national security will be attached to the national flagship and it will be built in the UK.

My Lords, years ago, we were able to say that there were about 50 destroyers and frigates available for service in the Royal Navy. What is the present figure and is it sufficient for the threats that we face?

I cannot give my noble friend a precise figure for the entire fleet of ships, but I can say that, as he is aware, there have been significant additions in recent years, not least the two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers. We have an exciting programme of frigate building for the Type 26 and Type 31 and, of course, we have the Type 23s continuing in service and supporting. We are satisfied that we have the capability we need for the tasks that befall us.

Is it not the case that these ships require crews, and that crews require uniforms and other facilities on board for domestic purposes? Therefore, can the Minister give an absolute guarantee that none of the cotton products will include cotton from Xinjiang? It is absolutely fundamental, and I am very pleased that the Minister for Health is sitting next to the Minister, because exactly the same applies in the NHS. Do not trust the paperwork. The forensic company Oritain, using element analysis, can tell from the fabric where the cotton was grown. We do not want, on flagships for the Royal Navy, cotton produced by slave labour in China.

I do not have that specific information before me, but the noble Lord’s point is noted and I shall make inquiries.

My Lords, I am sure the Minister agrees that much has changed in the world since the OSS was first conceived and the contract let. Would the Minister concede that it is inappropriate to stand at the Dispatch Box and find reasons why this project is being delayed? It would be more appropriate for the Minister to explain how it is being expedited and sped up to meet the new world situation.

The MROSS is not a military engagement ship, per se; it is a ship that will do important surveillance activity, with reference to our subsea cables and energy infrastructure. I do not for one minute disagree: it is an important project; the MoD recognises that, but it is complex. That is why proper regard to due process must be taken.

My Lords, in the context of Ukraine, can the noble Baroness say what role the Royal Navy is playing in deterring Russian aggression? Given that there are 25 million tonnes of grain blockaded in ports around the Black Sea, what advice is the Royal Navy giving, particularly to neutral countries and their navies, to get that food out to feed starving people in the Horn of Africa?

As the noble Lord is aware, maritime activity in the Black Sea is governed by the Montreux convention, which Turkey has deployed. For the moment, that restricts activity. The United Kingdom Government are consulting with allies and partners on how on earth we can try to get some of that grain shipped, either by sea or by land.