Skip to main content

Type 26 Frigates: Clyde

Volume 615: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2016

Before we move on to the important topic of Type 22 frigates on the Clyde, will Members who do not wish to attend the debate please leave quickly and quietly?

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the timetable for building Type 26 frigates on the Clyde.

It is always a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, but for the record this debate is on Type 26 frigates.

Talk of defence platforms can often be a dry business, and it passes by most people in this House, never mind among the public. That is not true of the Type 26. The interest we see among Members today in the global combat ship reflects not only its strategic utility and world-class design; the farrago of delays and under-investment in the project and broken promises from the Ministry of Defence reveal the malaise at the heart of the United Kingdom’s strategic thinking, which sees preserving the shop window as more important than its most basic of roles: defending this political state adequately.

I would like the Minister to address with utmost sincerity—something that her Department has been unable to do up to this point—two principal points on the Type 26 project. First, in delaying the start of the project, the Minister and her Department are doing enormous damage to the defence of Scotland and the United Kingdom, which, as I mentioned, is one of the Government’s most solemn and fundamental tasks. Secondly, the failure to cut steel on the vessels, alongside an ongoing refusal to fulfil the promise of a frigate factory on the Clyde, is placing enormous pressure on the complex warship-building capacity that Government have unequivocally promised to protect, causing undeniable financial harm and insecurity to the thousands of skilled and dedicated workers from along the Clyde who are feeling increasingly let down.

In short, behind the broken promises and procrastination, the MOD has proven beyond doubt one maxim put forward by myself and Scottish National party colleagues time and again: every penny spent on the abomination that is Trident is a penny less spent on conventional defence.

In beginning to pick apart the sorry saga of the Type 26, one has to start somewhere, and I choose to start with the Royal Navy taskforce that sailed to recapture the Falkland Islands in 1982. That taskforce was composed of some 23 frigates and destroyers; today, the entire Royal Navy boasts only 19 frigates and destroyers, of which all are based between Her Majesty’s Naval Base Portsmouth and Her Majesty’s Naval Base Devonport. Paradoxically, that leaves the United Kingdom’s southern coast as its most northerly complex warship base.

Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that the submarines are based up in Scotland? They are coming, in the main, away from Devonport, and we are still responsible for the refitting and refuelling of the nuclear submarines.

The last time I looked we were discussing the construction of naval vessels, not the basing of weapons of mass destruction. Nevertheless, I am delighted that the Conservative party wants to engage in a strategic look at shipbuilding, because Conservative Members were recently in this very Chamber talking about rebuilding the royal yacht Britannia. While they are away and on into the distance with their pith helmets, the rest of us are left behind with the catastrophe that is Brexit, which I will pick up on later. They can go on to the distance in Britannia.

The capability gap is felt most keenly in Scotland. The northern third of this island, with a coastline longer than that of France and direct access to both the North sea and the Icelandic gap, is left dangerously under-defended at a time when Russian Federation incursions into our territorial waters are beginning to reach cold war levels. The perfect example came in January 2014, when the Russian carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov “took shelter” in the Moray firth. It took the United Kingdom’s fleet ready escort 24 hours to reach the carrier group before it went on its way—although not before dumping its waste in the firth.

The House may have read the recent reports of the Kuznetsov’s imminent return to the waters of the North sea. The carrier group left the port of Severomorsk on Sunday and is expected to make its way towards assisting Russia’s continuing destruction of Aleppo via the North sea and English channel.

A headline in the Norwegian press this week says: “Russia’s biggest warships steam along coast of Norway towards Syria”, just as my hon. Friend has described. The related article says:

“Norway has a frigate, Coast Guard vessels and Orion surveillance aircrafts that have all followed the Russian navy group since it sailed out from the Kola Peninsula into the Barents Sea on Saturday.”

Does he agree that that is a substantial contribution from Norway, and one that the UK would struggle to match?

I certainly do agree with my hon. Friend. That small northern European nation seems far more capable of defending its territorial waters and meetings its obligations to NATO than the United Kingdom.

Amazingly, despite long-standing knowledge of the Kuznetsov’s deployment, and it coming as NATO’s largest annual exercise is taking place in Scotland, the Government have been able to rustle up only one Type 23 frigate and one Type 45 destroyer to escort the carrier group through the UK’s exclusive economic zone, meaning that were the group to split, there would be no way of keeping tabs on the largest ships in the Russian navy. Quite simply, the ageing Type 23 fleet cannot keep pace with the growing number of tasks put forward for it. The understandable challenges of dealing with a 35-year-old platform have led to worrying gaps in the Royal Navy’s most basic capabilities, whether that is the designated fleet ready escort being neither a frigate nor a destroyer, or the frequent and worrying absence of a UK vessel from the NATO standing maritime group in the north Atlantic.

The Government’s contention that a smaller fleet can be justified by increasing versatility can be met only by proceeding with the Type 26 programme. These are highly capable, versatile, multi-mission warships that would give the Royal Navy the capabilities it needs. Talk about the United Kingdom offering NATO a world-class anti-submarine warfare capability sounds hollow when we do not invest in the primary platform to undertake that, and when investment in other platforms—whether that is the carriers or the Poseidon P-8 maritime patrol aircraft—is called into question because a fundamental part of their support network has been put at risk.

When the Minister responds to the debate, I hope to hear a real commitment to a timetable for cutting steel on the ships, as well as their expected in-service dates.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the delay in giving such a guarantee is an utter betrayal of the workers on the Clyde? It really calls into question both the UK Government’s commitment to conventional defence capability in Scotland and where their priorities truly lie.

Is it the Scottish National party’s policy to increase defence spending to something that in my view would be reasonable: 3% of gross national income? That way, we could provide more Type 26s, Type 23s and Type 45s.

I have great respect for the hon. and gallant Gentleman, but if we get rid of Trident we might actually be able to cover that.

In introducing this debate, I not only raise to a wider audience my own concerns about the continuing delays to the project, but echo the concerns of the Defence Committee and many prominent former senior Royal Navy officers. When the former First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord West, appeared before the Defence Committee at the start of June, the response to my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman) was that the Ministry of Defence had run out of money for these ships. We were never really given an acceptable answer from the Minister’s Department. Indeed, Admiral Lord West pre-empted the MOD response by expressing the opinion that any contention by the MOD that the problems were principally with the design would be “economical with the actualité”.

Today I will go even further than Lord West and ask the Minister specifically to address the concerns that have been put to me that the scandal of the lack of any timetable for construction of the Type 26 actually masks a wider problem of a continuing lack of investment in the Clyde yards, putting their long-term future at risk and jeopardising the jobs and skills of thousands of workers at Govan and Scotstoun.

In the lead-up to the announcement of the plans for the Type 26 programme, the workers at those two yards were offered a clear quid pro quo. There would be a significant restructuring in the workforce, including job losses, but that would be offset by investments that would guarantee jobs for a generation. At the height of the referendum on Scottish independence, the Minister’s Department explicitly tied that investment to the no vote. There would be 13 Type 26 frigates built on the Clyde, in a brand new “frigate factory”, to protect the workers from the west of Scotland’s rather inclement weather.

When we heard last November in the strategic defence and security review that the number of Type 26s being built would be reduced still further, trade unions told my Scottish National party colleagues—and others, I am sure—that that was not a huge concern, because the infrastructure investment for building the Type 26 would ensure that the new general-purpose frigate would also be built on the Clyde. So the Clyde waited—and waited, and waited—until the planned date for the cutting of steel came and went, until it emerged that there was a £750 million gap in infrastructure investment and until it became clear that the UK Government were rubber-earing our questions about the GPFF being built on the Clyde.

This is a tale of underinvestment and neglect, and I can relate to it. Perhaps—just perhaps—this is a deliberate Tory strategy, and one that has form on the Clyde. The Minister may not remember the names of former Ministers; on these Benches, we will not forget one: that of Nicholas Ridley. When Jimmy Reid, the late patriot, presented the Ridley letters, which were written in 1969, to the Scottish Trade Union Congress, they proved that the Tory Government had outrageously planned the closure of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders. By their inaction, this Government are following a well-trodden path in this regard. The Tories are making a political decision, rather than a strategic one.

In the context of current naval investment, the delay in building these vessels could be seen as excusable if there was an understanding that the ministerial promises to the highly skilled and dedicated workforce of these yards would be upheld. The fact is that these workers and my colleagues are all listening with increasing concern to the Government’s deafening silence on the subject of the GPFF, and although we appreciate that there is a shipbuilding strategy to come in November, the MOD must at least give reassurances before then.

However, even as workers on the Clyde work outside in all weathers, the Government have not been slow in coming through with investment elsewhere. In Barrow, those workers who are working on the multi-billion pound Successor programme to Trident are being kept dry by the Government investment there, which includes an indoor assembly hall. There could be no better illustration of my contention that every penny spent on Trident is a penny less spent on conventional defence. Trident costs have not always been part of the MOD budget, but now that they are, the Government’s intention to ring-fence the MOD budget and other budgets has led us to this inescapable conclusion.

It may not come as a surprise to hear that me say that, as I am a member of the Scottish National party, but I am echoing the assessment made by General Sir Richard Shirref in front of the Defence Committee last year, and the assessment of General Sir Richard Barrons, which was revealed in the Financial Times in September. Vital capabilities such as the Type 26 have been “withered by design”, as a result of the MOD priorities that place unusable weapons of mass destruction above the defence of the state. “Preserving the shop window” means workers on the Clyde worry about their job security as vital infrastructure investment is kept to a bare minimum.

I will end my opening speech by reiterating the two questions that I hope the Minister will address. First, how will the UK Government address the worrying gaps in national security caused by the ongoing failure of the MOD to build the Type 26 on time? Secondly, will the Minister give the workers of the Clyde a timetable for construction of the Type 26 and address their concerns about the total and complete lack of investment in infrastructure to support the GPFF, which would guarantee their job security beyond the medium term? I await the Minister’s answer; they await the Minister’s answer.

The guideline for Front-Bench responses is five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. Therefore, I will call the Front-Bench spokespersons no later than 5.07 pm. Mr Docherty-Hughes will have three minutes to sum up the debate at the very end. The time between now and 5.07 pm is for Back Benchers.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Hollobone.

First, I thank the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for setting the scene, and for expressing his concerns, needs and wishes regarding shipbuilding in his own constituency and across Scotland. These issues are very important for us all—each and every one of us. I declare an interest, as I am a Member of the Defence Committee, as indeed are a significant number of the Members who are here in Westminster Hall today.

It is a pleasure to speak on an issue that is of great interest. Indeed, the Defence Committee is holding an inquiry on naval procurement, including the procurement of the Type 26s, as it really is a matter of great importance.

The hon. Gentleman outlined the importance of the construction of the Type 26 for jobs first of all, but also for the security of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As I always say, and I say again now, we are better together. It is a real pleasure to speak on this issue and to put that marker down as well. I am very fond of my colleagues from the Scottish National party who surround me; I look upon them as friends and it is good to come along and contribute to a debate that interests them, interests me and interests this House.

There is a reason why we are world-renowned for our Navy—it is because we get the best. To get the best, we must put in the best, as well, and ensure that the Navy’s equipment is up to date and, more importantly, up to scratch. The Government plan to spend some £19 billion over the next decade on surface ships for the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service. On page four of the Library briefing for this debate—I commend the background guys for the work that they have done; the information in the briefing is excellent—it says:

“The Strategy is intended to place UK warship shipbuilding on a sustainable longterm footing”.

That was said by a Defence Minister, Earl Howe, in September.

In November 2014, the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who was the Minister responsible for defence procurement at the time—by the way, he was an excellent Minister and the meetings we had with him were always very positive and helpful—said that complex warships for the Royal Navy were only built in UK shipyards.

There is also a particular comment in the Library briefing that I love, namely, that we must maintain

“a ‘steady drum-beat’ of orders”,

which the Library briefing says

“is often mentioned by those following the Navy’s acquisition programme.”

Those are some of the comments that I have taken from the Library briefing.

A substantial portion of this planned work will be for the Navy’s new fleet of frigates. The remainder is divided between money that has already been committed to completing the new aircraft carriers, offshore patrol vessels and tanker ships, and maintenance and support for in-service equipment. Clearly, there is a commitment to the British fleet and to the Royal Navy, and we want to make sure that that continues. It is my desire, and it was the desire of the former Minister, the hon. Member for Ludlow, to see the new British fleet built in Britain. As we have said, we are marching to the steady drumbeat of orders, and that must be the way we move.

We are renowned in Northern Ireland for shipbuilding, through Harland and Wolff. Many Members will know that; I am not sure where those who do not know it have been living. I have heard many jokes about the Titanic, and all I have to say is this: it was fine when it left Belfast. Joking aside, we have the ability within the United Kingdom to build our own fleet, and that must be a priority. We must ensure that the Royal Navy’s replacement of the current 13-strong frigate fleet, which will begin to leave service in 2023, is manufactured on our shores. We need that commitment, and I believe that the Minister will give us it—I wait eagerly for her response and I thank her for being here.

It has been nice to hear that shipbuilding is important not only to Scotland but to Northern Ireland, England and Wales. In my constituency, I have David Brown Gear Systems Ltd. The company used to make tractors and owned Aston Martin—the DB9—and it now makes the gears for propulsion systems. I thank the hon. Gentleman for saying that the matter covers all elements of our United Kingdom shipbuilding and, like him, I look forward to hearing from the Minister about the wonderful Type 26.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for clearly underlining the great experience and talent we have across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in building, creating and manufacturing things that can be to our benefit.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, although the Titanic may have left from his province, the passengers came back to Plymouth? We in Devonport are really looking forward to welcoming the Type 26s if, as we hope, they are base-ported down in Plymouth.

The hon. Gentleman has a passion for the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. I know that from his interventions in discussions and from the comments he makes.

I am given to understand that there is a delay with the frigate fleet, but we must not and cannot cut the number of Type 26 frigates and opt for a new, cheaper, general purpose frigate. Will the Minister confirm that we will have the frigate we wish to have and not a cheaper one? I return to my original point—to be the best we must have the best. We have an industry that can and will make the ships to the highest of standards, to keep our Royal Navy in a position where it is effective and ready, and we have an industry that is crying out for the work. Those two needs can and should go hand in hand. As the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) said, we have a high quality of workmanship across the whole of the United Kingdom.

I would of course wish for Harland and Wolff to have its share of any work that can be carried out. That is natural, having grown up as I did, with men around me going to the shipyard for their day’s work. I can remember as a boy—and that was not yesterday—many people from my constituency going to Harland and Wolff. The manufacturing base we had in Northern Ireland was certainly one of the best. However, what is most important for me is that the ships are built to meet the needs of the Royal Navy and that they are not pared back to suit cost analysing.

I have spoken out often—some may say loudly on occasion—against the paring back of any of our armed forces, and many in this Chamber do likewise. We should be under no illusion: the Royal Navy provides us with a security that is as necessary today as it ever has been. In the armed forces all-party group we go to dinners and hear speeches on behalf of the Royal Navy and we are always impressed by what we see and hear and by the efficient, modern, up-to-scratch Royal Navy that can combat any in the world. As a nation that might not be labelled as “at war” but is certainly instrumental in international peacekeeping, it is essential that we look to our future and ensure that we have a Navy that can defend as well in 20 years’ time as it can now.

I again thank the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire for raising the issue. Although I understand—I may have got it wrong—that he is putting down the marker for where ships are made, I am putting down the marker to ensure that they are, in fact, made, and to the specifications that are needed. Although we want to keep shipbuilders busy, that is not why the order was placed. It was placed because we need the frigates—it as simple as that. That was determined in 2010 and, if anything, our need for an up-to-date and modern Navy has only intensified since then. Let us keep the shipbuilders in business by ensuring that everything is built on our shores but, more importantly, let us keep our shipbuilders and shores safe by giving the Royal Navy the tools that are needed to do that. The well-known saying, “You get what you pay for”, has merit; we need the best and it needs to be paid for. Let us ensure that the autumn statement reflects that need and the action that must be taken.

I look forward to the Minister’s response, and I hope that she can convince us all and give us the confidence that the Type 26 frigates are the ones that will be here for the future. If that is the case, this will have been a good debate.

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. As the Member who has the privilege of representing the Govan shipyards, it is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) for securing it.

There remain a number of questions to be asked this afternoon, but possibly the simplest one can best be described as: does eight plus five equal 13? That is important, in understanding the history of where we are. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire highlighted, the history started before the independence referendum, with promises of 13 Type 26 frigates. Last November, at the strategic defence and security review, we were given the assurance: “It’s okay. There won’t be 13 Type 26 frigates; there’ll be eight Type 26 frigates and five light, general purpose ones.” There is nothing to worry about, was the message given to the workforce on the Clyde. I ask that simple question because I know that the workforce on the Clyde and the trade unions are frustrated by and worried about the delays in the timetable for the Type 26. The original date for cutting steel was May 2016; it would be useful if the Minister could give reasons for the delay in the procurement. Despite 15 written questions, I have received no meaningful answers.

I do not think we need the Minister to answer that. The answer is that we had no money; that is why we had to cut down the number of Type 26 ships. [Interruption.] We did not have the money, and we have to cut our coat to suit our cloth.

The hon. Gentleman may say that, and I may come on to that point, but the Government have never confirmed that that is the reason for the delay, and it would be useful if they were to say that today. If he is correct that there was a lack of money, I am sure that there are Committees and hon. Members in the House who would want to ask what happened with the money.

Lord West suggested to the Defence Committee that the defence budget for shipbuilding was spent. In answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman), he said:

“Shall I tell you what the problem is? Notwithstanding having said how much extra money there is for defence, in the near years there is not. There is almost no extra money available this year, and we are really strapped next year. The Government aren’t coming clean about that. I think if they did, people would understand.”

In answer to further questions, he outlined that delays can be costly in the long run. In response to the Chair of the Committee, he said:

“Every delay costs you money. These delays all cost money. You need a steady drumbeat of orders to keep high-tech industries going. Our complex surface warship building industry, like the submarine one, needs a steady drumbeat of orders.”

My hon. Friend talks about the drumbeat and the starting point for the project. Is it not one of the key concerns that, even when the project starts, if the drumbeat is extended and the length of time for the completion of each ship is extended, by the nature of that equation, fewer workers will be needed?

That concern is felt not only by my hon. Friends, but by me and, crucially, the trade unions and workforce on the Clyde. What economic impact assessment has been carried out on delaying the Type 26 frigates? We know from an excellent report by the Fraser of Allander Institute, which was commissioned by GMB Scotland, that the two BAE yards at Govan and Scotstoun directly employ a total of 2,723 people. More than 1,000 of them, men and women, are skilled tradespersons. I am delighted that there has been an increase in women apprentices and women workers highly involved in high-tech industry. The report estimates that the two yards in Glasgow support a total of 5,943 jobs and, through that, £162.7 million of wages across Scotland as a whole. Returning to my original “eight plus five” question, will the Minister confirm whether the general purpose frigates will also be built on the Clyde, as confirmed by the former Prime Minister in the strategic defence and security review in November 2015?

We know that a national shipbuilding strategy will be announced soon. I am looking forward to that, when it comes, but I reiterate that we should not underestimate the frustrations of the workforce. They want to build ships. They want a long-term future for the Clyde that will begin with cutting steel for Type 26 frigates. I look forward to the Minister’s response to my questions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) on securing this important debate, and I echo his call for the UK Government to come clean on when work will start on the Type 26 programme. He put forward the compelling case that what we are witnessing has all the hallmarks of another sorry tale of under-investment, neglect and broken promises to workers on the Clyde.

The workers on the Clyde have no better champion than my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), and he was absolutely correct when he pointed out that in the run-up to the 2014 referendum on independence, we were promised that if we remained within the United Kingdom, there would be 13 new Type 26 frigates. That was unequivocal. That was the figure we were told. However, fast-forward barely a year, and in the 2015 SDSR, that figure was reduced to eight, alongside a vague, unwritten promise of five light frigates.

To back up my hon. Friend, I have a leaflet that was put around by the Labour party during the referendum campaign. It states, unequivocally:

“Within the UK Govan and Scotstoun will get the order for 13 Type-26 frigates from the Royal Navy.”

What does he make of that?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It is one of many broken promises that I am sure will not be forgotten.

I am sorry that the cross-party consensus on such an important issue has been so inelegantly broken, but will the hon. Gentleman tell the House how many frigates would have been built had people voted yes in 2014?

Had the hon. Gentleman been in his place at the start of the debate, he would have seen that there was cross-party consensus. We were being very consensual. The Scottish people and the Scottish workforce have been betrayed by the Government. The hon. Gentleman would do well to focus on the Government and their betrayal, rather than attacking people who are defending Scottish workers.

With the old Type 23 frigates being withdrawn from service in 2023, the Type 26 programme had to start in early 2015, but the manufacturing of the eight ships will now not begin until the summer of 2017 at the earliest, with at least one union convener saying that it will not begin until 2018. That is a delay of at least two years, and possibly three. As we have heard, the lesson from all defence procurement deals is that if there are delays, costs will always increase.

What is the reason for the delay? Is it that the Government think that we no longer need Type 26s? That is not the case. As Peter Roberts, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Service Institute, said, the Government are talking about

“a level of Russian submarine activity that we have not seen since the 1980s…That poses a significant threat for the UK”.

If the delay is not on the grounds of national security, and it is not a strategic decision, it can only be based on cost. Perhaps Lord West of Spithead, the former First Sea Lord, was absolutely right when he said that

“there is not enough money in the MOD”

to start construction. He said that before Brexit, and he could say it with bells on now.

Despite the Minister’s protestations that the

“national shipbuilding strategy…is not something that is affected by the outcome of the referendum”,

we all know that if prices are denominated in dollars, costs will soar.

When the Secretary of State for Defence came to the House on 27 June—the first day the House sat after the EU referendum—he said that he was

“not prepared to sign a contract with BAE Systems until I am absolutely persuaded that it is in the best interests of the taxpayer”.—[Official Report, 12 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 592.]

Are we to assume that that was mere coincidence? The hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) got it absolutely right when he said that the project has been delayed because the Government have run out of money. They have run out of money because they have committed far too much of their procurement budget to Trident. It would be an unforgivable betrayal of the Clyde workers if they were the ones who had to pay not only the price of Brexit, but the price of Trident, which has been ring-fenced within defence procurement. Once again, it appears that the Government are prepared to sacrifice our conventional defence capabilities to their obsession with Trident and nuclear weapons. I look forward to the Minister letting me know about that.

If there is not a lack of will and there is sufficient money, prove us wrong and give us a start date. The workers on the Clyde have had far too many broken promises. An important supply chain is at risk in the defence manufacturing sector. We need confirmation that the five general purpose frigates will also be built on the Clyde. I would appreciate it if the Minister addressed that point in her remarks. The work needs to start now. The workers on the Clyde have been betrayed too often. Will the Minister break that chain of betrayal and let-down? Give us a date for when work on the Type 26 programme will start.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It has been said that confusion and muddle have been the hallmark of the Government’s approach towards naval shipbuilding in recent years. Nowhere is that lack of clarity more in evidence than when it comes to the construction of frigates.

The Navy has 13 Type 23 frigates. As we have heard, there was a strong suggestion in the 2010 strategic defence and security review that 13 Type 26 frigates should be constructed in place of those 13 Type 23 frigates. We were told that manufacturing of those new frigates would begin in 2015-16, but the 2015 SDSR cut the number from 13 to eight. At that time, the Government gave a weak commitment to building at least five new general purpose frigates, possibly more. They have yet to agree a manufacturing date with BAE Systems for the Type 26 frigates, and the demonstration phase on those frigates was extended in March 2016 by a further year. At the same time, BAE Systems has been building three offshore patrol vessels, and the Government plan to have two more of those. That general factual background leads to a number of key questions that have been touched on in the debate, and that I want to underline.

First, with regard to timescale, if the Government do not give the go-ahead and the date for the cutting of steel is not before summer next year, the production trades will have almost finished manufacturing work on those offshore patrol vessel programmes, and will have no work to carry on with. In other words, there will be a hiatus. The trade skills that are required for the construction of the offshore patrol vessels will be lost and will not be able to be deployed other than at significant cost, with more delays and more training. It is important that the Government come clean; they must have some idea of the start date, and I hope that the Minister will tell us when that will be.

The second question is again on the issue of skills and the dovetailing that will be necessary between the Type 26 programme and the programme for the general purpose frigates. The trade unions have pointed out that as the Type 26 programme design phase is decreasing, the ship designers will need another programme to work on, so we need specifics from the Government on the general purpose frigate programme as well. What is the Government’s intention in that regard?

Thirdly, we have already seen delay—hopefully there will not be more—but what does that mean for the existing Type 23 frigates? The Government have said that there is to be no extension of their lifespan. Is that still the case? I have been told that the Type 23 frigates have already exceeded their original design life. If they are kept in service, there are implications for the Navy, in terms of fulfilling the requirements that those frigates meet.

The final question is on cost, and clarity would be desirable here. As we have heard, there have been suggestions that because of the Government’s continuing austerity programme and the hardening of cuts, it is becoming increasingly expensive for them to make real their previous commitments. Admiral Sir Philip Jones, the First Sea Lord and head of the Navy, suggested that when he told MPs on the Select Committee that one problem is the cost of designing quiet ships; the technology is far more expensive than was originally envisaged. That may or may not be the case, but what is very important, on that and on the other issues raised this afternoon, is that we have clarity and certainty from the Government.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that delays have an economic impact, and not just on Govan, Scotstoun or Scotland? There is a wider economic impact. If there is a delay, that will mean a more expensive programme in the long run.

Broadly speaking, that is correct. There will certainly be excessive costs if the Type 23 frigates are required to stay in service beyond their natural design life. Also, with most programmes, and certainly with defence procurement programmes, the longer the programmes, the more the delay and the greater the costs. There is also an impact on the workforce, with greater uncertainty and greater job insecurity. On all these issues, what is required is, at the very least, clarity from the Government. I thank the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) very much for bringing forward this issue today.

Let me start by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) on securing this debate and for providing me with the opportunity to update the House on this important subject.

The 2015 strategic defence and security review restated this Government’s commitment to the Type 26 global combat ship programme. It was a positive strategic defence and security review for the Royal Navy, committing to an increase in the size of the service for the first time in a generation.

There has been a high level of interest in the programme since we announced our plans and I, along with ministerial colleagues, have consistently confirmed the Government’s continuing commitment to it. Let me once again reiterate that commitment. The Type 26 global combat ships remain critical for the Royal Navy and nothing has changed since last year’s strategic defence and security review. We are going ahead with eight anti-submarine warfare ships and all eight ships will be built at the BAE Systems shipyards on the Clyde.

We have backed up our commitment with significant investment as we continue to progress the Type 26 programme. We announced in March this year the award of a contract with BAE Systems, valued at £472 million, to extend the Type 26 demonstration phase to June 2017, enabling us to continue work with industry to develop an optimised schedule for the programme to reflect the outcome of the strategic defence and security review; to mature further the detailed ship design ahead of the start of manufacture; to invest in shore testing facilities; and to extend our investment in the wider supply chain to cover almost all the equipment for the first three ships.

I welcome what the Minister has said, but it is worth pointing out that so far there is nothing new in it. Will she tell us when the manufacturing start date will be?

I did not say that in updating the House there would necessarily be anything new, but I do want to reiterate the commitments that I have previously made.

The work will benefit suppliers across the country, injecting an estimated £200 million into the UK supply chain and sustaining 1,600 high-quality jobs, an estimated 600 of which—more than a third—are in Scotland. From Loanhead in Midlothian, where the helicopter handling equipment will be built, to Fleet in Hampshire, where communications equipment will be developed; from Dunfermline in Fife, where the steering gear will be built, to Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), where the gearboxes will be constructed—this investment is good news for UK industry. Furthermore, we announced in July the latest commitment of £183 million to buy the maritime indirect fires system—the five-inch gun—for the first three ships. That takes our total investment in the Type 26 programme so far to £1.8 billion, which is hard evidence not only of our commitment to the programme but of real progress in delivery.

Like the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), I am guessing that we are not going to get a date for cutting steel this afternoon. Is it the Ministry of Defence’s intention to tell us the expected date for cutting steel on the Clyde before or after the autumn statement?

The hon. Gentleman is going to get a lot of interesting stuff from me this afternoon, so he will have to sit on the edge of his seat as I speak. I will give the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire three minutes to sum up.

A key focus of this afternoon’s questions has been the timetable for the programme and the building of the ships. The timing of the award of the build contract and the build schedule itself are key components of the ongoing commercial negotiations between the Government and BAE Systems. We are negotiating a deal that aims to optimise the Royal Navy’s requirements, in terms of the capability that the ships will deliver; to achieve value for money for defence and the taxpayer; and to deliver a build schedule that drives performance by industry. Those negotiations are continuing, so I am not in a position to give a specific date for when an agreement will be reached. I am sure hon. Members will appreciate that, to protect the Ministry of Defence’s commercial interests, disclosing any such detail would be inappropriate at this time.

The Government have given assurances to Lockheed Martin and those working on the F-35s in Fort Worth in America right through to the end of 2030, but they are totally unable to do so to the workforce at BAE Systems in Scotstoun and Govan to the end of this decade. Surely there is a mismatch between their commitment to British workers and their commitment to those in America.

With the greatest respect, I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s statement. We have an incredibly ambitious shipbuilding programme in this country. In Scotland at the moment, we are building the two largest warships that the Royal Navy will ever take delivery of. The hon. Gentleman cannot complain in any way about the ambition of our shipbuilding programme in the Clyde; I do not accept that in any way, shape or form.

I want to touch on the national shipbuilding strategy, which was raised by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and others. I hope the assiduous Member for Strangford has had a chance to meet with Sir John Parker, who hails from Northern Ireland, as part of his review. He is a leading authority on naval shipbuilding and was appointed independent chair of the shipbuilding strategy. He will make his recommendations by the time of the autumn statement.

The Minister will be aware that Sir Mark Stanhope, the First Sea Lord of the Navy, attended the Defence Committee. He said that if we do not cut the steel soon, some very old frigates will be protecting brand new carriers and the strategic nuclear deterrent, and he warned that the Navy is in danger of not being able to fulfil all the requirements expected of it. The date is so important—can the Minister give it to us?

In answers to the House, we have disclosed the out-of-service dates for the existing Type 23 frigates. They are a matter of public record. Clearly, the acquisition of the Type 26 global combat ship will be crucial to the future of the UK’s shipbuilding industry, and will form part of the national shipbuilding strategy. The Type 26 global combat ship will form a key component of the future maritime force, but last year’s strategic defence and security review also considered more widely how it will replace our current in-service frigates.

Hon. Members will be aware that there are currently 13 Type 23 frigates in service with the Royal Navy. The eight Type 26 global combat ships will be built to replace the current eight anti-submarine warfare Type 23 frigates on a one-for-one basis. The capability currently provided by the five general-purpose Type 23 frigates will be met by a new class of light, general-purpose frigate that will, by the 2030s, enable us to increase the overall number of frigates. The programme to take that commitment forward is in its pre-concept phase and is a key part of the national shipbuilding strategy. I look forward to receiving Sir John Parker’s recommendations on taking the programme forward soon.

If the Minister is unable to give a date for when the steel will be cut on the Type 26s, will she at least confirm that the five general-purpose frigates will be built on the Clyde?

I have given the hon. Gentleman a range of dates for some of the commitments we have already made and some of the contracts we have already placed as a result of this programme, which sustain jobs across the UK.

The need to ensure we have the skills required to deliver Type 26 also came up in the debate. That is an essential factor in the successful delivery of the programme and is crucial to our strategic aim of placing UK shipbuilding on a sustainable long-term footing.

In the interests of time, I will quickly skip through the issue of offshore patrol vessels. We are looking forward to the delivery of HMS Forth—a ship of that class—next year, and HMS Medway and HMS Trent remain on track.

It is important to put the Type 26 programme in its wider context. Overall, last year’s SDSR achieved a positive and balanced outcome. We are growing the defence budget in real terms for the first time in six years and delivering on our commitment to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence. The SDSR enables us to invest £178 billion in new equipment for our armed forces over the next decade, an increase of £12 billion on previous plans. In the maritime sector, we have set the trajectory for expansion of the Royal Navy’s frigate fleet as we spend about £8 billion on Royal Navy surface warships over the next decade.

As I have explained, we continue to progress the Type 26 global combat ship programme. Hon. Members with constituents who work at the shipyards on the Clyde rightly emphasised the importance of the Type 26 global combat ship programme to the workforce. In response to concerns expressed on their behalf, the Ministry of Defence has consistently restated its commitment to the programme and confirmed that all eight ships will be built on the Clyde. There should be no lingering doubt on that point or on the idea that Royal Navy vessels would be built on the Clyde had Scotland voted to leave the United Kingdom.

The Minister mentioned the national shipbuilding strategy, which has to report by the autumn statement. I am going to ask the question I asked earlier: does she expect an announcement on the procurement of Type 26 frigates by the autumn statement? That would be helpful for my constituents.

The hon. Gentleman is doing the right thing in representing the interests of his constituents. He is correct that the national shipbuilding strategy will report by the autumn statement.

Let me conclude, because I want to leave time for the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire. It is of crucial importance to the Royal Navy that the Type 26 programme delivers the capability it needs. Equally, for the taxpayer it is crucial to ensure the delivery of a programme that represents value for money for the scale of investment it represents.

I thank all hon. Members who spoke in this debate, and I thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for their participation.

The Minister talked about good news, but this is good news with no timeframe. It is just talk—a footnote in Hansard. It is of no use to the communities of Govan and Scotstoun and those on the Clyde, whose families rely on the cutting of steel. The Minister talked about Scotland’s place in the Union and said, critically, that no ships would have been built there if we had left the Union. At this rate, there will be no ships built anywhere in Britain, never mind in Scotland. We might just farm them out to South Korea—it would be a wee bit cheaper.

Yet again, there is grave concern across the Chamber. I accept the point of view of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). We may disagree on the constitution, but the history of shipbuilding in Belfast mirrors the history of shipbuilding on the Clyde. There is nothing about being better together, I am afraid. To those Members who look forward to HMNB Devonport housing the Type 26s, I say this: we need to get rid of the Type 45s first, and they are not working.

I again pressure the Minister, when the statement comes forward in November, to give us the date. Tell us when we are cutting steel. Let us get on with it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the timetable for building Type 26 frigates on the Clyde.

Sitting adjourned.