‘I see no ships'?

PM Johnson turns a Nelson-like ‘blind eye’, risking the future of UK shipbuilding

Reading time: 9 min

The United Kingdom is famous for its seafaring tradition. The legendary Royal Navy has won many a maritime victory and our shipyards have been the envy of the world. Britannia may no longer rule the waves – but more importantly our world-class shipbuilding industries and 40,000 highly skilled jobs are now in jeopardy.

Why? Because the government is going back on its word to build Royal Navy fleet support ships in the UK – and has sneakily invited overseas yards into bidding to build three new key ships.

The estimated £1.5bn ministry of defence (MoD) contract to build three Fleet Solid Support (FSS) ships that will help keep the Navy’s new aircraft carriers at sea, provide them with stores including ammunition and food, has been put out to overseas tender – or ‘market engagement’ as it’s known.

In effect this would see ‘shovel ready’ work, funded by the UK taxpayer, dished out on a plate to overseas yards, while UK shipbuilding workers lose this significant opportunity to keep their jobs, their futures – and the UK – afloat.

This move goes against the recommendations of the National Ship Building Strategy, has angered unions including Unite, and worst of all, betrays the nation.

Because on September 29, 2019, the Conservatives proudly announced to British voters, that in a football-style statement, ‘Shipbuilding is coming back to the UK’ – if you vote Conservative. And as we all aware, the Tories became the current government.

The Tory web page states, “The Prime Minister announced that new warships for the Royal Navy will be built in the UK.

“This will secure thousands of jobs for people at British shipyards and ensure that the United Kingdom is a global, outward-looking nation as we leave the EU.”

And then @BorisJohnson proudly tweets, “The UK is an outward-looking, seafaring, global nation. We’re going to strengthen the Royal Navy and bring shipbuilding home” – followed by a video in which he bombastically states, “We will have even more shipbuilding than we’ve had in the past.” He talks of generating jobs and ends by saying “[shipbuilding] has been a massive part of our past and will be a massive part of our future too.”

Apparently, “The Government is committed to supporting the shipbuilding industry,” and “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.”

And if that was not enough of a guarantee to the Conservative’s commitment to the industry they add, “Boris Johnson has also appointed Defence Secretary Ben Wallace as the ‘Shipping Tsar’.”

Finally, Johnson says, “I look forward to the restoration of British influence and excellence across the world’s oceans. I am convinced that by working together we will see a renaissance in this industry which is so much part of our island story – so let’s bring shipbuilding home.”

But sadly, just like football, shipbuilding might very well not be coming home.

Although Type 31 frigates are indeed being built by Babcock in Rosyth, the Fleet Solid Support (FSS) ships’ UK manufacture is now in doubt. The government is arguing that the FSS are part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, so they are not in fact warships – which have to be UK-built.

If it looks like a warship…

But if it looks like a warship and smells like a warship… Unite is part of the Confederation of Shipbuilding Unions (CSEU) who firmly believes the FSS is a warship, full stop.

In its’ recent report it explains that “the three FSS vessels are expected to be 40-45,000 tonnes each and the programme, which is funded, will be around £1bn to £1.5bn. The ships will support the [aircraft] Carrier Strike capability, one of the nation’s two strategic capabilities, by supplying vital supplies such as ammunition, spare parts, and engines for the F-35B Lightning II aircraft.

“Each of the three FSS vessels has specific tasks that will require differences in their design and build. All three are complex ships and each should be seen as a one-off vessel.”

Meanwhile ministers have also conveniently said that EU procurement rules mean the contract has to be offered internationally.

But CSEU general secretary, Ian Waddell argues, “We were told repeatedly by government that there had to be an international competition to build these ships because of EU state aid rules. Well, we’ve left the EU so why are international suppliers being invited to tender for this project?”

FSS could also be used to help stimulate the UK economy, with state-funded projects being directed to British industry, the CSEU believes. “In July the Prime Minister issued an urgent call for ‘shovel-ready’ projects to help the economy recover from the damage wreaked by the coronavirus lockdown – and FSS is a perfect example,” Waddell added.

And as work on contracting the FSS ships starts, MPs also want to see how awarding military contracts in the UK can help contribute to the national economy.

But the MoD is apparently not giving MPs access to a ‘lessons learned’ document of how mistakes were made previously by placing a contract to build similar vessels outside of the UK.

There’s no doubt as far as Unite and the CSEU are concerned that at this crucial time in kick-starting the economy, that building the FSS here will play a key role – and that the mistakes made in 2012 cannot happen again.

Reports in the Daily Telegraph have said that the Commons defence select committee has been denied access to the report on the £450m deal in 2012 that saw four Tide-class tankers to support the Navy built in South Korea.

According to committee chair Tobias Ellwood MP, the document “assesses the economic impact on the UK of handing a contract to a foreign firm, including the loss of UK shipbuilding jobs that are critical to national security.”

But the MoD has informed the committee the report cannot be shared as it contains commercially sensitive information, as well “an open and frank assessment of the procurement process and UK shipbuilding industry”.


The move has angered unions. Unite assistant general secretary and CSEU president, Tony Burke was not impressed. He said, “Boris Johnson made a promise to support UK shipbuilding and the government’s actions now beggar belief. Over 40,000 shipbuilding industry jobs are at risk – over 40,000 families have been betrayed.

“He’s now backtracking and letting down all those people he said he’d support. Our shipyards are in desperate need of support,” Burke added.

Unite national officer for aerospace and shipbuilding, Rhys McCarthy agrees. “We understood that this government wanted to support UK shipbuilding. But it looks like all you get from them is empty soundbites and any promises are swiftly reneged upon. ‘Build, build, build’ they said in the midst of the pandemic – but what they really mean is ‘Build, build, build anywhere but the UK.

“At this critical time when the economy is fragile after the mayhem of Covid-19, we absolutely desperately need these crucial jobs to stay in the UK. Is it too much to ask a government to support its own workers?

“This is not what was promised post-pandemic or post-Brexit and if the future of our country is ignoring the talent of UK manufacturing and shipbuilding jobs we are heading for the rocks,” he added.

Should sense prevail and the FSS ships get to be built in the UK, the main shipyards would be Cammell Laird on Merseyside, A&P on Tyneside and Falmouth, Babcock Rosyth and also Devonport, but Unite believes there would be more than enough work to go round all the UK’s main sites.

“With one in three employers expected to make redundancies and employment falling by the largest amount in a decade, how can our government put UK work out to international tender and risk more UK jobs?” asks Unite’s Cammell Laird convenor, Tony Brown.

“They changed the policy to make these ships open to international tender and they can change the policy back if they wanted these ships built here. Other countries class their auxiliary ships as key to national defence because they are key to national defence.

“Now with so much uncertainty in the world it makes even more sense now for UK jobs, UK training, UK security, and the future development of UK shipbuilding and the engineering and manufacturing sectors we all rely on,” added Brown.


“While the question is asked about who will pay for the pandemic it is bewildering that the government refuses to see the incredible possibilities it could reap from a thriving shipbuilding sector,” says Unite assistant general secretary, Steve Turner.

“Shipbuilding is not a relic, nor our yesterday as a nation. In fact, it very much ought to be part of our future – and that of all our skilled workers who have given so much and who have had their lives put on hold by the cruelty of Covid-19 – and now by the backtracking of this government.

“If ever there was a ‘shovel ready’ project, it is FSS. It will pump prime £1.3bn into regional economies and protect 40,000 jobs in the supply chain. So why has the government asked overseas companies to tender? Prime Minister, support UK workers and give this nation proper hope of a brighter tomorrow.”


Tell ministers to build these boats in the UK


Keep Britain Afloat latest plus video

By Amanda Campbell @amanda_unite

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