Unite has cautiously welcomed this week’s defence spending announcement – but warned that it must be used to create and support jobs and communities in the UK amid a national employment crisis.
On Thursday (November 19) prime minister Boris Johnson outlined a multi-year defence funding package that would see an extra £16.5bn boost to the defence budget over the next four years.
Vowing to “restore Britain’s position as the foremost naval power in Europe,” Johnson said that the defence budget had been ‘trimmed and cheese-pared’ for too long, and he had “decided that the era of cutting our defence budget must end, and it ends now”.
The ‘once in a generation modernisation’ of the armed forces would, the prime minister noted, protect hundreds of thousands of jobs and create an estimated 40,000 more.
Boris Johnson said the extra funding would invest in new technologies, including a new artificial intelligence centre, the creation of a national cyber force, and a new “RAF space command launching British satellites and our first rocket from Scotland in 2022”.
Crucially, the prime minister said that the extra spending would “spur a renaissance of British shipbuilding across the UK, in Glasgow and south Belfast, Appledore and Birkenhead”.
“If there is one policy which strengthens the UK in every possible sense it is building more ships for the Royal Navy,” he noted.
Specific mention of the Harland & Wolff shipyards in Belfast and Appledore – both acquired by Infrastrata within the last year – has raised hopes that the two shipyards will be given the orders they need to thrive.
Commenting, Ian Waddell, general secretary of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU), of which Unite is a part, welcomed the funding announcement but said the government should also look at existing defence programmes to be fast-tracked.
“Any increase in funding which will create and maintain jobs in the defence and security sectors, both directly and through the supply chain, and which protects our sovereign defence capability is to be welcomed,” he said.
“However, we have written to the Government with details of nine existing defence programmes that can be fast-tracked in response to the Prime Minister’s call for shovel-ready projects which will protect 33,000 existing jobs at a cost of just £2.5bn and which are already budgeted for,” Waddell added.
“We hope that the Government will consider the importance of investing in jobs that people currently do as well as in jobs that don’t yet exist as part of their levelling up agenda and in order to protect the communities that rely on them outside the South East.”
Unite national officer for aerospace Rhys McCarthy said that Unite would be taking a wait-and-see approach and would demand that extra defence spending must be used to protect incomes and support and create jobs in the UK.
Unite welcomed news in September that the government had made a major U-turn after pressure from Unite, the CSEU and other unions and indicated that the three Fleet Solid Support (FSS) ships now in the pipleline would be built in the UK. But many questions yet remain over the £1.5bn FSS contract, such as whether design and maintenance work would also be undertaken in the UK.
“Unite will be watching closely that the recent government announcement regarding defence spending not only seeks to defend the nation but also defends the UK economy, ensuring that money is spent on UK technology, skills and jobs,” McCarthy said.
“UK design, build and maintenance must be at the forefront and baked into government contracts so we take into account the prosperity agenda, the UK supply chain and tax and NI benefits that would flow back to the treasury,” he added.
“We need to guarded and make sure this doesn’t become about buying off the shelf from the US with little or no workshare, and little added value or building our fleet support ships with the bulk of the design, build and maintenance not being done in the UK and not using British steel, cabling and systems.”
Striking workers at Rolls-Royce Barnoldswick, who are fighting the decision to outsource their jobs abroad, know all too well how defence work can be handed to other countries while UK workers lose out.
Commenting from the Rolls-Royce Barnoldswick picket line on the defence spending boost, Unite regional officer Ross Quinn told BBC Radio Lancashire, “On the face of it for us and our members, it seems positive but we want some cast iron guarantees that the defence procurement will prioritise spending taxpayers’ money here in the UK.
“Currently I’m actually on the picket line in Rolls-Royce in Barnoldswick where we’re seeing UK jobs being transferred to Singapore,” he said. “Our members are taking industrial action over that. So for us there’s a lot of anger here today. This is the birthplace of the jet engine; it played a huge role in the country’s defence and at the moment [workers] fell like they’ve been abandoned. So it all depends on how [the new defence spending] filters through.”
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner also emphasised that defence spending must benefit UK workers – and that Unite would hold the government to its word on jobs.
“The announcement on defence spending is welcome and should be good news for the UK’s aerospace and shipbuilding sectors,” he said.
“The defence secretary Ben Wallace has promised that the increased spending will benefit UK firms and we will ensure his feet are held to the fire until he delivers on this commitment,” he added.
“The prime minister must provide very clear cast iron guarantees that UK defence procurement will prioritise spending taxpayers’ money here in the UK, protecting UK jobs, skills and technology. Guarantees that must extend to the supply of key components and materials such as steel and fibre-optic cabling used in these projects,” Turned continued.
“The UK’s plans for extending the UK’s space capabilities and the investment earmarked for the development of the future combat air system, should act as a shot in the arm for the UK’s aerospace sector, which has suffered an economic battering as a result of the Covid pandemic.”
“This is a sovereign capability issue and our members have shown for decades they have the talent, skills and commitment to supporting our nation’s defence to play their part in meeting this goal.”
By Hajera Blagg