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Offshore Patrol Vessels

Volume 793: debated on Monday 22 October 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they plan to withdraw from service the Batch 1 River-class offshore patrol vessels HMS “Tyne”, “Severn”, “Mersey” and “Clyde”.

My Lords, our plans to withdraw the Batch 1 River-class offshore patrol vessels from service have yet to be finalised. Our decision will be informed by the outcome of cross-government discussions to determine our requirement for fisheries protection and compliance of patrols in UK waters following our exit from the EU. HMS “Severn” left service in December 2017 and is held alongside pending these deliberations.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Yesterday was of course the 213th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar—

A great hurrah! The Secretary of State wrote in a Sunday paper that Nelson would look at the modern Navy with great pride and amazement. I think the amazement would be because he said that the Navy was growing, but it is not. Nelson had 280 frigates and we have 13, so I find that difficult to imagine.

The Minister touched on one area where there is real concern: our exclusive economic zone and territorial seas. We do not have enough assets there. Here is a wonderful opportunity to increase the number of ships available to look after those waters at a very low cost. They could be manned by the RNR and we would achieve something rather than just talking about it. Does he agree?

I am sure that the noble Lord will acknowledge the extent of the investment devoted to the Royal Navy over the past few years. His point is a good one. The watchword in this context is “flexibility”. The programme to replace the Royal Navy’s offshore patrol vessels is continuing; the Batch 1 vessels will be replaced by the Batch 2 ships as they enter service. It is important that we keep open the possibility of extending the service of and/or keeping in reserve HMS “Clyde” or HMS “Mersey”, for example, to meet any requirements emerging from not only Brexit but other contingencies. That is what we intend to do.

If the patrol vessels are to work in the EEZ, which would be highly desirable, there are of course multifarious parties and agencies that also work there—the Navy, the Border Force, customs, Defra, HMRC and so forth. Which government department has the overall lead on such matters as command and control, training and funding for the activities that will be done in the EEZ?

My Lords, there are two key requirements to ensure the security of our waters. One is that operations need to be intelligence-led, and the other is that they should be well co-ordinated—the noble and gallant Lord makes an excellent point. In the protection of our borders, the capability to detect and deter vessels and aircraft approaching the UK is just one part of a multilayered approach that the Government take in protecting our country. The Ministry of Defence is just one organisation with a role in this. It is important though to recognise the importance of co-ordination. That is why the permanent Joint Maritime Operations Coordination Centre exists—to deliver a national and international focal point for home waters maritime security and planning. The key is for all agencies to work together in a concerted fashion.

Is my noble friend aware that I have a special interest in this matter? I think I was the Minister who ordered the original 11 River-class minesweepers, of which now apparently four remain. What has happened to the other seven?

My Lords, they have been decommissioned. In congratulating my noble friend on the foresight that he showed in commissioning those vessels, I hope he will be reassured by my initial Answer—that we are maintaining flexibility to cope with unforeseen contingencies.

Is this issue part of the defence modernisation programme, which is of course a defence review by another name? The results of that review were promised in June this year. So far, no results have been published. What is the reason for the delay, and when will the results be announced?

My Lords, the Defence Secretary published a Written Ministerial Statement on 19 July, as the noble Lord will be aware. It set out the headline conclusions of the modernising defence programme. I know that noble Lords were slightly disappointed with that Statement. We had hoped that it would be informative and reassuring—we had certainly intended it to be so. It confirmed the direction of travel; it described the work done to date; it set out some headline conclusions. Strictly speaking, the matter of the offshore patrol vessels is not part of that but, as I have explained, it is important to prepare now for the contingencies that may ensue from Brexit.

My Lords, how many of these ships will protect our fishing fleet after Brexit at any one time? After all, we are taking back all these waters and presumably clawing back the allocation of catches from the Spanish and everybody else.

As we speak, the Marine Management Organisation within Defra is making a full assessment of the scale and volume of both sea-based and non-seaboard patrol and surveillance capability required after we leave the EU. This is the key point for us to focus on. The Ministry of Defence and other agencies are tracking this work, but it is important to remember that fisheries protection is multilayered. It is not just the Royal Navy that enforces protection. The Marine Management Organisation relies on a lot of other systems to do that very thing.

My Lords, I have just flown in from New York, having attended Trafalgar Night on board the “Queen Elizabeth”. It was a most splendid occasion. We entertained the seniors of both the United States Navy and their Marine Corps. They could not have emphasised more their pride in having us as an ally, and everybody in this House can be very proud of the professionalism of all our sailors on board that ship. But when I asked the head of their navy, “Could you remind me how many people you have?”, he said, “363,000”. What was very clear was that they would like us to have greater capability. Do the Government recognise that, to keep this valuable friendship with the Americans, greater capability must be provided by the Government?

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend will know that the national shipbuilding strategy recognises the need for greater volume in the destroyer and frigate force. The Type 31e will enable us to grow the size of the frigate force.