FSS 'warships' U-turn

Unite and CSEU hail victory after gov’t reclassifies FSS ships, raising hopes of being built in Britain

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Unite and shipbuilding unions celebrated victory after the government made a major U-turn this week, suggesting they have reclassified Fleet Solid Support (FSS) ships as warships – and so must be built in the UK.

In a long-running campaign, both Unite and the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU), of which Unite is a part, have called for the three FSS ships, which will help keep the Navy’s new aircraft carriers at sea and provide them with munitions and food, to be built in the UK and so support thousands of local jobs and economies and keep the UK’s shipbuilding tradition alive.

The FSS contract is worth £1.5bn and the work to build the ships is estimated to potentially support 16,000 jobs.

International tender

While the government had previously intimated these ships would be built in Britain, UniteLIVE reported in August that it quietly went back on its word and continued to insist they had to go out to international tender because they were not classified as warships since they were part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

 “The procurement of the Fleet Solid Support ships through international competition reflects the fact that they are Naval Auxiliary support ships and not warships,” said then defence minister Stuart Andrew two years ago, first explaining why they had to go out to international tender.

“We are therefore required by law to procure them through international competition, under our obligations set out in the Defence and Security Public Contracts Regulations 2011 and as outlined in the National Shipbuilding Strategy.”

The very next year, ahead of the last general election, prime minister Boris Johnson repeatedly emphasised that shipbuilding was coming back to the UK.  

“As part of a Conservative defence policy, we will continue to grow the British shipbuilding industry – using British design, authority, and expertise in military design and shipbuilding to create jobs around the UK,” he said last year.

The international bidding process for the FSS ships was axed last November because the government said bidders couldn’t meet budget constraints, but then in August this year, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) quietly invited international competitors to take part in ‘market engagement’ for the work.

Campaign ramped up

 Unite and the CSEU ramped up their campaign to have the ships built in the UK, and the Labour Party joined them in the effort with their own ‘Built in Britain’ campaign and petition.

Earlier this month, Unite national officer for shipbuilding Rhys McCarthy gave evidence to a parliamentary Defence Select Committee meeting, highlighting why it was so vital that these ships are built in the UK.

He told the committee, “We have a situation where one of the preferred international bidders is a Spanish state-owned company, receiving Spanish state aid, and it is an unfair disadvantage and we’ve seen it with other shipbuilding that’s gone on, with South Korea for example.

“Our members are not afraid of internal UK competition, particularly if it drives excellence. What we have concerns with, and it’s been shown with the FSS debacle, is international competition that damages our industrial base and the skills that go with it.

“We don’t want to lose sovereign capability and we think it’s a penny-wise and pound-foolish approach and as others have touched on it doesn’t appear to be a defence policy or a strategy.”

Now it appears as though unions’ campaigning work has paid off — defence secretary Ben Wallace told the Commons last night (September 21), “We have already started a market engagement exercise and have had a healthy response.

“I intend to announce the procurement timetable for these warships in due course, after market testing has completed.”

The Mirror reported that sources have confirmed that Wallace’s use of the word ‘warships’ was not accidental and that they are now indeed classified as warships, which will significantly increase the chances that the FSS ships will be built in Britain.

Commenting, CSEU general secretary Ian Waddell told the Mirror, “We have always said that these ships should be classified as warships.

“They are armed and support the Carrier Strike Group in combat operations.

“Our competitor countries classify their tanker craft as warships and recognise them as being vital part of their strategic capability,” he added.

“The UK should do the same in order to maintain the skills to design, build and maintain the fleet as well as safeguarding thousands of jobs and pumping over £1bn into our regions to get the economy up and running again.”

Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner hailed the victory, tweeting, “This will be a fantastic victory for our unions, workers and communities that campaigned so hard to secure the UK build of our #FSSShips … let’s ensure we use @UKSteel and cabling and other services too!”

Questions unanswered

Unite national officer Rhys McCarthy also welcomed the move.

“The government has finally bowed to pressure after our union and reps’ steadfast involvement in the CSEU campaign to ‘Keep Britain Afloat’ — to ensure the £1.5bn contract for the three FSS ships are built in the UK after now being reclassified as warships,” he said.

McCarthy pointed out the hypocrisy of the current government.

“We have a situation where Boris Johnson’s government is currently saying that the right for the UK to use state aid is a red line in any potential EU trade deal and something it will not compromise on. This is whilst for the last five years it has demanded that the FSS contract be put out to international tender, as to not do so would be in breach of EU state aid and competition rules.

“This glaring contradiction was not lost on many who have pointed out that we have already left the EU and regardless of being in or out and any trade deal, all the UK had to do, at the stroke of a pen, was to declare the FSS as warships — which they in fact are — and a UK-only bid can go ahead.”

This is what the French have previously done for their support ships for their aircraft carrier, McCarthy explained.

He went on to say while it was welcome that the FSS ships have been reclassified as warships, he added that many questions were left unanswered with the U-turn.

“We still need further clarification as defence secretary Ben Wallace also announced that the contract is open to and will be encouraging foreign bids – we need to know what this means for work and jobs in the UK,” McCarthy said.

“The building of the three ships in the UK must mean that the design, build and maintenance are undertaken in the UK,” he continued. “Also, like the building of our aircraft carriers, the bid should be awarded to a UK shipbuilding consortium, block built with work shared across all shipyards in the UK. It must also be built with British steel and cabling. Doing so makes sound industrial and economic sense and would safeguard thousands of jobs, our shipyards, our manufacturing base and would support both our local and national economies.”

By Hajera Blagg

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