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Royal Navy: Ships and Frigates

Volume 814: debated on Thursday 14 October 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they expect to place orders for (1) the remaining five Type 26 frigates, (2) the three Fleet Solid Support Ships, (3) the new flagship, (4) the underwater research vessel, and (5) the Type 32 frigates.

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence expects to place an order for the Batch 2 Type 26 frigates in the early 2020s and to award a manufacturer contract for the fleet solid support ships within two years from May 2021. The Defence Secretary has said that he aims to have the national flagship in the water by 2024 or 2025. No decisions have yet been taken on order dates for the multi-role ocean surveillance ship or for the Type 32 frigates.

I thank the Minister for her Answer. Indeed, it sounds marvellous. Having a Prime Minister who says that nothing does more for the security of our nation than building a warship for the Royal Navy obviously cheers up a sailor like me, but the reality is that he made these statements 12 months ago and not a single order has been placed since then. I am scarred by 56 years on the active list of hearing numerous things told about ships coming and their never joining the fleet. The Government said that we would have and keep a minimum of 13 frigates, which is, after all, pretty damning for a maritime nation like us. When one looks at the order rate for frigates and the possibility of the rolling programme which so many shipyards need, one has to say that we are not going to have 13 frigates as we move into this decade. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case? I do not expect her to say how many, but as somebody with an intelligence background I would think it will be considerably less.

I have outlined what is currently happening. With construction of the Type 26 progressing on the Clyde and the Type 31 progressing on the Forth at Rosyth, we have, for the first time in 30 years, two classes of frigate simultaneously under construction in UK shipyards. That means that several classes of Royal Naval ships will be in build this decade. I would have thought that, to an old seadog such as the noble Lord opposite, that would bring a beaming smile to his naval face.

I endorse everything that the noble Lord—I shall call him Lord and seadog—has just said, but I want to ask the Minister about interoperability. We all want to see the AUKUS partnership embedded as far as possible. Is further thought being given to new orders for full interoperability now that the partnership has been formalised?

Yes. It is an important collaboration and partnership. We and our fellow partners in that grouping will work closely together. As for interoperability, I guess that can take two forms: the normal conjunction of minds about strategy and approach, particularly in the Indo-Pacific; it is also to do with having the right kit available. The noble Lord will be aware that part of the new shipbuilding strategy has been to ensure that, when we build naval ships, they have an export potential. Indeed, British Aerospace has agreed an export order to Australia.

My Lords, the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord West, seems to include every possible kind of naval vessel except submarines. Can the Minister say how many submarines are on order and when she expects them to be delivered? Can she also say how the national shipbuilding strategy is now working in practice?

The programme for Dreadnought is already public. These ships are being commissioned and the potential delivery dates are in the public domain. The shipbuilding strategy has played an important role in the approach to shipbuilding in this country, not least making possible the more flexible design and export potential of ships being built, as well as having regard to the need to sustain skills. We are seeing that at first hand. I have visited Babcock on the Forth and British Aerospace on the Clyde, and I visited Leonardo in Edinburgh just last week. All of them are benefiting from a new approach to skills and playing their part in maximising them—Leonardo, of course, more so in electronics than in shipbuilding.

My Lords, when we get these extra frigates, Admiral West should maybe be re-enlisted.

Does the Minister agree that there is a startling contrast when it comes to frigates being built at Rosyth and on the Clyde, showing the value of the union to Scotland, while at the same time ferries cannot be built by the Scottish Government-owned shipyard at Port Glasgow and instead they are having to go to the rest of Europe or the Far East to get ferries that are vital for the Western Isles?

I know that the noble Lord and I can have our civilised and courteous differences of opinion, but I am absolutely at one with the sentiments which he expresses. I see at first hand exactly what the MoD means to the union, not least Scotland. I also see the significant contribution made by the union to the MoD. It is a mutually beneficial relationship. The security of the United Kingdom would be gravely prejudiced if Scotland were to leave and that union were fractured. I hope it never will be.

My Lords, also coming from Benches where we support the union, I ask the Minister: how many jobs does she think might be secured in shipbuilding as a result of AUKUS? Does the Minister think there will be sufficient members of the Navy to man the new ships, if and when they are built? I assume the noble Lord, Lord West, will not be available to captain them.

If I may answer the last part of the noble Baroness’s question first: yes, there will be. That is a logistical calculation that we constantly make and review. We are going to have people to man these ships—disappointed though I shall be not to see the heroic form of the noble Lord, Lord West, at the helm of something that is floating.

My Lords, defence of the realm is obviously incredibly important, but so is defence of the planet. Yet the MoD is exempt from the duties that all the rest of us have to fulfil of cutting carbon emissions. These vessels will be highly polluting. Does the Ministry of Defence know that there is a climate emergency?

Of course everyone in the United Kingdom knows that there is a climate emergency, not least the Ministers of this Government. It is evident from the measures being brought forward how seriously we take that challenge. Modern engineering technology is greatly contributing to more efficient use of fuel and reducing emissions. In relation to the defence estate, which is massive, I have seen at first hand some of the excellent measures now being taken to optimise our contribution to improving the environment.

My Lords, it is very good to see that the Government are investing in national shipbuilding infrastructure, but we know that it will still be important to ensure best value for money through the highest levels of productivity. Does my noble friend see value in aligning these programmes with those of allies and partners who have similar shipbuilding ambitions? In addition to Canada and Australia, which have bought the Type 26 design, Japan’s naval shipbuilding programme has many similarities to the UK’s. Are the Government looking to build such synergies?

We always keep a weather eye on what our friends and allies are doing. Our first responsibility in securing this nation is to ensure that we have these capabilities for production within the UK. My noble friend makes an important point, and it is one that we are alert to.

When we talk about the future of the Navy, any proposal should be put through a test to ensure that ships are built in Britain. I was therefore surprised to see the Defence Secretary recently saying that it was only his intention that the new national flagship would be built in the UK. I was even more surprised to see that less than 30% of the steel used so far to construct Type 26 frigates had been sourced from our own country. What specific measures will the National Shipbuilding Office deploy to ensure that British naval ships are built with British steel?

The noble Lord will be aware that responsibility for sourcing steel for government-procured vessels rests with prime contractors; it should be in line with Cabinet Office procurement policy. It will be for the prime contractors to make their steel requirements known to the UK steel industry in order that firms may consider bidding.

My Lords, the less money we spend on ships, the more we have to spend on social care. Does the Minister agree that, despite what we hear on the last night of the Proms, Britain has no God-given right to rule the waves? Strutting our importance across the world was questionable, but understandable in the 19th century. Today, it simply encourages others to do the same, with an increasing risk of serious conflict.

This Government have a fundamental democratic responsibility to keep this nation secure and safe and to work with our allies and partners globally to contribute to a safer world. I have to say to the noble Lord, with the greatest respect, that it is very difficult to do that with an inadequate defence capability. We have seen over decades what happens when our defence capabilities drop below what is needed, frankly. I think it is a matter of great commendation for the United Kingdom, and the very skilled people in the shipyards throughout it, that we are forging ahead with this imaginative, innovative, constructive and effective shipbuilding programme. Many people in communities across the whole United Kingdom—or, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said, the union, which is so precious to us all—are being supported by that endeavour.