Inviting foreign firms to bid on a £1bn government contract to build Royal Navy support ships abroad has turned Britain into a “laughing stock” and is a betrayal of UK ship workers, Unite warned MPs yesterday (April 23).
The comments were made by Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner, who was giving evidence to the Defence Select Committee on military procurement policy.
Unite is campaigning for the contract to build two or possibly three 40,000 ton Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels to be given to a British shipyard.
UK firms Babcock, Rolls-Royce, Cammell Laird and BAE Systems have formed a consortium to bid for the contract and are facing rival bids from Japanese, South Korean, Italian and Spanish companies.
Turner told MPs, “We really are the laughing stock of Europe, let alone anywhere else. The French don’t do it, they will not build outside France, just like the US.”
Although Royal Navy warships must be built in the UK, the government says support ships are not combat vessels – despite the fact they transport weapons and sail with the Royal Naval fleet – and have insisted on allowing shipyards outside of Britain to bid for the contract.
Turner told the defence committee that the only reason the contract has been tendered worldwide is that the government has “an ideological obsession” with free markets.
He added, “It’s a political choice, rather than about economics.”
MPs were warned that choosing not to build the ships in the UK would be a “betrayal” of the UK’s shipbuilding sector and directly contravene 2016’s National Shipbuilding Strategy, which emphasised the necessity of a “steady drumbeat of work” to keep the industry afloat.
Without a continuous flow of work, shipyards are likely to make redundancies as large projects like the construction of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers come to completion.
MPs were told that not only would such a scenario risk jobs and livelihoods but skills that are crucial for the industry’s future.
Turner also criticised a lack of joined up thinking among government departments regarding the procurement of steel for Royal Navy ships.
He said, “We’ve got Type 26 frigates being built on the Clyde and all of that steel is coming in from Sweden, while we’re desperate for work on our UK steelyards.
“(On the support ship contract) there’s 80,000 tons on a two-ship build, with a third option for another 40,000, and there’s no recognition across departments in government that the work should be integrated. That steel should be produced in UK steel plants.”
Plans by General Electric to move work on Royal Navy ship engines from its Rugby plant to Nancy in France were also mentioned at the hearing.
Turner told MPs, “It is a gross betrayal of our national security interests to allow the Rugby site to close and for that work to transfer to France. It is incredibly sensitive and highly secure work and a lot of that work can only be done in the UK.
“To lose that facility would be a real detrimental measure taken against the interests of our Royal Naval fleet. There isn’t a serving vessel that hasn’t had its power conversion and engine capabilities produced at the Rugby site.”