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Volume 771: debated on Monday 11 April 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is the optimum build rate of surface warships in the United Kingdom to ensure viability of a national complex warship building capacity and the best cost per ship; and what assessment they have made of how many yards are necessary to ensure resilience in case of national emergency.

My Lords, the new national shipbuilding strategy led by the independent chair, Sir John Parker, will consider the optimum build rate, the cost per ship and number of yards required to ensure a modern and efficient national warship sector capable of meeting the country’s future defence and security needs. Work on the strategy is ongoing and Sir John Parker will make recommendations to the Government later this year.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. It is rather “jam tomorrow”. He will be aware of the direct link between build rate, actual length of time that a ship has to survive, and overall numbers. Since 2010 we have not ordered a single highly complex major warship. If we do not have a constant flow of ships being built in this industry, we will have another fiasco like the steel industry. I ask the Minister, first, why, when the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence said at the time of the 2015 SDSR that we would have a larger number of warships in the Navy by 2025 than today, in fact we are going to have fewer? Secondly, does he not agree that it is a disgrace that we have so few ships that for the first time in living memory we do not have a destroyer or frigate deployed in the north Atlantic outside home waters, in the West Indies or in the south Atlantic?

My Lords, I do not accept that by 2025 we will have fewer ships. The strategic defence and security review published last year set out the Government’s plans for surface warship building, in particular the Type 26. We committed to precede that programme with two additional offshore patrol vessels. The work to develop a new baseline for Type 26 is proceeding, as is the work preceding the concept study for the design and build of a new light general purpose frigate. The key aim of the national shipbuilding strategy is to have a sustainable long-term shipbuilding capacity in the UK. The point on which I particularly agreed with the noble Lord is that what many people call a regular drumbeat of production is what is required, rather than peaks and troughs.

My Lords, is it not the case that the regrettable reduction in the surface fleet of the Royal Navy has, to a large extent, been caused by the disproportionate amount of the defence budget—particularly the naval part of that budget—for these two magnificent aircraft carriers? While we all look forward to seeing these magnificent ships in service, is it not the case that those who lobbied for them wanted to build the two biggest ships that the Royal Navy has ever had?

My noble friend is quite right. We can look forward with some eager anticipation to the arrival of the “Queen Elizabeth”-class aircraft carriers, which will indeed be the two largest ships that the Royal Navy has ever had. It will be a proud achievement for this country and will extend our reach, as the Navy and the Government wish to see.

My Lords, on the same theme of the aircraft carriers, can the noble Earl give the House an indication of when those two wonderful ships will actually be operating in service? At the same time, can he tell your Lordships whether the F35B flight aircraft, which is to be launched off the aircraft carriers, has any chance of being in service before 2020?

My Lords, the programme has already been announced in the SDSR but, broadly, the “Queen Elizabeth” aircraft carrier itself will be in service by the early 2020s and we will have a number of F35s deployed on that ship. Indeed, we have accelerated the procurement programme for those aircraft.

My Lords, what strategic assessment has been made of the UK’s capacity for warship building with the potential closure of Port Talbot steel? If no such assessment has been made, does that mean that we intend to rely on other, friendly nations such as China to supply the steel for British warships?

My Lords, the capacity of British industry to service our warship building requirements will be very much centre stage in Sir John Parker’s work on the shipbuilding strategy. As regards Port Talbot, I am sure that the noble Lord will know that the Government are committed to doing all they can to work with Tata to explore how we can support the company to secure a buyer for the plant and put in train a turnaround plan. We are working with the Welsh Government to do that. There is good news today on Tata’s plant in Scunthorpe, where a deal has been secured, but I assure the noble Lord that we regard British steel manufacturing as of vital importance to this programme.

Can the Minister please answer two points on the same issue? First, will the strategy review that Sir John Parker undertakes cover the question of productivity? Every country builds warships more cheaply for the taxpayer if there is a regular drumbeat on the strength of which you can invest your money, skill your people and buy your capital equipment. If you have peaks and troughs at the political whim of any part of the nation, people will tend not to invest in the industry or train the people. Secondly, will the strategy that Sir John Parker is to develop cover the fact that the UK’s steel industry can supply an awful lot with the brilliant speciality steels that it makes? It is not just about commodity steel.

The strategy will cover all those topics. It is very much about looking at how many ships we wish to build and in what order; looking at the question from the industry perspective as well as the customer perspective; how many we can afford; and what the productivity rate should be. As the noble Lord rightly said, this regular drumbeat of production is the way that we can maintain not only the manufacturing flow but the skills as well.

I am so sorry to interrupt the noble Lord but it is the turn of the Conservative Benches. We will then have time to come through to the Labour Front Bench.

Does my noble friend agree that however wonderful the two new aircraft carriers are, they are too big for the jump jets that we are putting on them?

No, I would not. The F35 has been very carefully selected in order to be able to work from the carriers, and it will do so very effectively, as has been proved in the United States on its carriers.

I apologise to the noble Lord—I was distracted and did not see him rise to his feet. [Laughter.] I know I am not quite as vertically challenged as he is, but I am a bit short-sighted at times.

Following on from the point made by my noble friend Lord Reid of Cardowan, I am sure the Minister and I would agree that Britain needs a secure supply of steel for the construction of warships and other defence platforms. But in the event that we no longer have a British steel industry, and our country becomes involved in a conflict which makes it all but impossible to protect the seas around our island, thus cutting off the supply of imported steel, what is plan B?

There are an awful lot of ifs there, and I do not necessarily subscribe to any of them. Indeed, as I have said, the Government are working very hard to ensure that we have a viable heavy steel industry. We have issued new policy guidance in the MoD to ensure we are addressing the barriers that prevent UK steel suppliers from competing on a level playing field with international suppliers. That emphasises the importance of increased pre-market engagement in particular, which in turn will feed into the national shipbuilding strategy, so I do not share the noble Lord’s pessimism.