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Volume 829: debated on Wednesday 10 May 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government how they intend to ensure continued production of frigates after the Type 31 class has been delivered.

My Lords, the refreshed National Shipbuilding Strategy is a mechanism for providing clarity to industry on future shipbuilding requirements for the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy works closely with the National Shipbuilding Office and Defence Equipment and Support to ensure that the Government’s relationship with industry is optimised to deliver ship- building requirements.

My Lords, the reassuring and mellifluous voice of the Minister makes things seem cosier than they are. We were promised for some three years that we would not drop below 19 escorts. We are now at 17. We were promised that there would be a growth in the number of escorts from the late 2020s, but that is not the case with current orders. Just to give an idea of numbers, we have 17 of these things. We lost more than 16 in May 1916. We lost more than 17 in May 1941. In May 1982 in the Falklands, 12 were lost or damaged—so 17 is not very many.

We import 95% of our goods by sea. Our seabed is at a greater risk than ever before and there is a war in Europe. Can the Minister confirm that shipbuilders and SMEs need a guarantee of a drumbeat of orders? That certainty allows the cost of the ships to be driven down, and it allows growth in skilled manpower. At the moment, there is a lacuna in orders. When will the drumbeat be committed to with orders, so that we can increase these numbers, and when will the number of escorts start to rise above the pathetic figure of 17?

I am not entirely sure of the noble Lord’s analysis and historic comparator: we are operating in a different age, with a different character of threat. The current shipbuilding programme in fact has a very loud and resonant drumbeat: the commitment to a Type 32 frigate, the bulking up with new weapons systems of the Type 23 and Type 45, and the flexibility offered by the Type 31 design, which gives options for the future, promise a very exciting period of development for our Royal Navy. If we look at that in conjunction with the carrier strike group, the two Queen Elizabeth class carriers and our nine submarines, we have a very robust maritime capability.

My Lords, given that the Type 26 is being built on the Clyde and the Type 31 at Rosyth, is it within the Minister’s understanding that the United Kingdom has never placed an order for a warship with a foreign country, and that, if Scotland were to become independent, that would not ensure the continuance of this most remarkable trade, the success that it offers and the reputation that it enhances?

The noble Lord makes a very important point. For example, in Scotland, with BAE Systems developing the Type 26 in the Clyde, Babcock developing the Type 31 from the Forth, and companies such as Thales and other industry partners doing a lot of support work, it is a very important area of economic generation for Scotland, providing jobs and skills. Historically, warships of this sensitive nature would not normally be placed with a supplier abroad.

My Lords, if we have 17 destroyers and frigates available for service with the Royal Navy, are they all serviceable and do we have sufficient crews for all of them?

The surface fleet availability comprises a total of 53 vessels. Of these, 37 are available and 16 are unavailable. Of those 16, a considerable number are in deep maintenance and will be coming out and available for operations—and, as I said earlier, we have our nine submarines. The Royal Navy is absolutely clear: we are able to discharge our operational obligations with the fleet that we have.

My Lords, does commitment to shipbuilding include the steel industry? Unless the Government give subsidy to that industry, it is likely to be destroyed. Will they commit themselves to give the same sorts of support that the Germans are giving to their steel industry?

Defence is not a major consumer of steel: indeed, for the financial year 2020-21, it consumed a little over 4,808 tonnes, and the forecast up to 2030 is for an average of 8,640 tonnes per annum. To put these numbers in perspective, in 2021, the UK produced slightly less than 7.4 million tonnes of steel, so the total forecast MoD requirement per annum is no more than about 0.12% of current UK production.

My Lords, when my noble friend responded to the noble Lord, Lord West, she said that we lived in a “different age” with a “different character of threat”. Was she seeking to imply that the threats that we now face are less than those that we faced 20, 30 or 40 years ago?

No, not at all: the threats remain as important and potentially lethal as they have ever been. But they come in multiple forms, some of which are different from the ones the noble Lord, Lord West, was describing from 1942. We require an agile, resilient maritime capability. We have that, we are developing and building on it, it is exciting, and it will ensure that we have a very capable maritime capability for the future.

My Lords, further to the question from my noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, is it true that SNP Ministers did not accept an invitation to attend a recent steel cutting for frigates on the Clyde? Could that be because of embarrassment that they cannot build their own fishing vessels—I mean ferries; I knew it began with F —on the Clyde?

I can understand the noble Lord’s diffidence in trying to describe what the SNP is building at the Ferguson shipyard. Having said that, I pay tribute to the skills of the workforce there and to the management, which is doing an extraordinary job. It is a rather sorry advertisement for the efficient delivery of ships, and I hope for the sake of the yard that these ships ultimately get launched in the near future. As to whether an SNP Minister attended the steel cutting, I do not know and am unable to comment.

Can I return the noble Baroness to the question of the policy context for the future purchase of these ships? Is she suggesting that we are potentially returning to an age of decisive maritime engagement, where the exquisite capabilities of these ships might be decisive, or is the age one of a more competitive world in which points of maritime presence and the utility and flexibility of these ships are of greater importance?

The noble and gallant Lord makes a very important distinction. It is the case that we have identified the need for our Royal Navy to be resilient and flexible and, as I indicated earlier, the Type 31 design is just that. I know that a number of noble Lords in this Chamber have asked this and I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, who has pursued this point with me: why does the MoD not look for a more easily procured piece of equipment, rather than trying to build the exquisite every time? I can say that there is evidence that the MoD is departing from that. The Type 31 is one such example. It could arguably be described an almost off-the-shelf vessel. The new MROS vessel has been bought off the shelf and will be ready for operation very soon. I think there is evidence, as the noble and gallant Lord identifies, that we need to have resilience and flexibility and be astute in working out how to provide that.

My Lords, to what extent does the Minister accept the concept of a “drumbeat of orders”? Ships that are built are inevitably late and I put to her that the reason is that they are not planned far enough ahead. Just how far ahead is the Ministry of Defence planning ship procurement and to what extent, if not placing orders, is the MoD sharing this with manufacturers?

I would like to nail the myth that there are delays. The Type 31 is on schedule and has proved a very satisfactory model of contract—five of them are to be off contract by 2028. The procurement of future vessels, as the noble Lord will be aware, has to go through a preconcept phase, a concept phase, a design phase and then the procurement process. The Type 32, for example, has gone into its preconcept phase and will be making progress on that. I think it is important to remember that there are accepted procedural stages we have to go through. The Type 32 is an exciting prospect and there will be more reported about that by the MoD in due course.