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Does 8 + 5 = 13? The MoD's promises on Clyde shipbuilding don't add up

Comment: Govan MP Chris Stephens shares his fears about delays to Type 26 frigates programme.

Promises, promises: Will the UK Government deliver?
Promises, promises: Will the UK Government deliver? Chris Stephens/MoD/SWNS

Meet the new boss: Same as the old boss.

Any residual hope that workers at BAE Systems in Scotstoun and in Govan in my constituency would be getting the answers on the Type 26 programme from new minister for defence procurement Harriett Baldwin that her predecessor Philip Dunne was unable to provide were dashed in a sentence given to the defence select committee yesterday: "We do not know yet."

I certainly don't know how we managed to get to this point. In the lead up to the Scottish independence referendum we were all told that 13 Type 26 frigates would be built on the Clyde, safeguarding thousands of jobs on both sites, with the line being clear: only the Union could guarantee jobs on the Clyde.

Fast forward to November 2015, and the strategic defence and security review (SDSR). The document revealed that only eight T26s would be built on the Clyde. But this was apparently not the bad news it would seem at first. Some said the yard was used to such reductions in numbers, as they had lived through something similar with the Type 45 destroyer programme, which had gone from an initial 12, to eight to a final six.

And furthermore, the yards had a carrot dangled in front of them that would theoretically guarantee jobs on the Clyde well beyond the end of the next decade: At least five general purpose light frigates, which while cheaper were more exportable, and could, the government hinted, lead to far more than five.

So, in November my constituents had a simple reassurance: 8 + 5 = 13. Nothing to worry about.

That was until April. At a time when workers should have been, according to initial plans, looking forward to cutting steel on a project they had been waiting patiently for, they were instead greeted with news that the project had been delayed. And that furthermore, some 800 jobs were at risk as BAE Systems struggled to balance the lack of work at the yard currently with their own bottom line.

The unions at the yards were understandably apoplectic; it hadn't been so long since a previous round of cuts. But at the time they had been given assurances that cooperation on their part with a difficult restructuring process would be rewarded.

The quid pro quo was simple: The Clyde would be the UK's designated centre for building complex warships, investment and orders would follow, and hundreds of years and generations of shipbuilding expertise would be protected.

The workers at Scotstoun and Govan are rightly proud of the heritage that they represent. Anyone who has visited the sites will know that they have the skills and the determination to ensure that this continues into the future.
Chris Stephens

And while government press releases talked a good game, it became quite clear that the investment trumpeted was no more than the minimum required to keep the project ticking over. Indeed some £750m had been removed from the budget. Key to making the Clyde viable into the long term would be an investment in a state-of-the-art "frigate factory" which would principally consist of an indoor assembly hall that would allow workers a bit of shelter from the famously inclement Glasgow weather, yet these plans had been quietly shelved.

And by the end of May, when the former First Sea Lord Admiral Lord West was telling the defence select committee that the MoD had "run out of money" for the T26 programme, the extent of under-investment in the Clyde was laid bare.

What also emerged at that time, though, was that there were other defence procurement projects which were not short of money, and where improvements in infrastructure, including indoor assembly halls, had been given the go ahead. Even before Monday's vote on the Trident Successor programme, Barrow-in-Furness was looking to a bright future.

It was this knowledge that made losing that vote on Monday even more galling. Writing a blank cheque for a new generation of submarines to carry a weapons system that will never be used was having demonstrable effects on the conventional defence budget. Especially since the decision to put the Trident budget into the general MoD budget in 2010 meant that every penny spent on Trident was a penny less spent on projects like the T26.

The military usefulness of these frigates is beyond doubt. The pride that the workers in the yards talk about in the world-class capability that the Type 26 will provide the Royal Navy is clear. And they are justified. This world-leading anti-submarine warfare capability is vital at a time when we are facing an unprecedented increase in Russian submarine activity in the Iceland Gap, directly above our north western coast.

The Royal Navy itself is at a historic low of only 17 usable frigates and destroyers. And Scotland is a maritime nation with no major surface warships based in its ports. The Falklands too are without a frigate or destroyer for the first time since the Argentine invasion, and basic tasks such as anti-piracy operations in the Caribbean, and anti people-smuggling operations in the Mediterranean, are being carried out by vessels that are not fit for purpose.

It is in these circumstances that ordering a new generation of nuclear-weapons submarines makes even less sense. My SNP colleagues made that abundantly clear in the debate on Monday, and after yesterday's news we will be redoubling our efforts to make sure the government keeps its promises.

I have written to the new Prime Minster to see if she can give me any assurances on the start date for the Type 26s. I will be doing all I can to ensure that all eight of these Type 26s will be fully built on the Clyde -- and that the investment will be brought forward to ensure that the Clyde is the centre too for the new general purpose light frigate.

The workers at Scotstoun and Govan are rightly proud of the heritage that they represent. Anyone who has visited the sites will know that they have the skills and the determination to ensure that this continues into the future. Where we MPs can help is by making sure those in power don't forget that, and that we ask the right questions.

I'll start with a simple one, and will be happy either for the new Prime Minister or the new minister for defence procurement to answer.

Does 8 + 5 still equal 13?

Comment by Chris Stephensthe MP for Glasgow South West.

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