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Save our shipyards

We need to back our ship workers and make ‘Build it in Britain’ a slogan for Navy vessels too, writes STEVE TURNER

ANGER over the news that Babcock plans to shut the shipyard at Appledore is still raw following the recent announcement, but it is underscored by the determination of the workers and the Devon community to step up the fight to save it.

Over 350 vessels of all shapes and sizes have been built at the Appledore yard since it opened on the river Torridge in 1855.  A source of employment and a bedrock of the West Country economy through the generations, the yard’s closure would be a huge blow to the community and a betrayal of a skilled loyal workforce.

Unite will continue to fight for the yard’s future and with it opportunities of skilled apprenticeships and decent, unionised work for coming generations, but, while we press the company to think again about the closure plans, government ministers must wake up to their role in the  the announcement to close Appledore.

At a stroke, ministers could secure the future of Appledore and other yards around the UK by lifting the delay to contract the Type 31e frigate programme and dropping their obsession to put the tender to build the Royal Navy’s new fleet solid support vessels out to shipyards in other countries. Instead Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson wrings his hands in true Pontius Pilate fashion, saying Appledore’s closure is a commercial decision for Babcock.

Such breath-taking complacency by the government blows a hole in the pretence of the government’s industrial strategy. As a result, Appledore is not the only yard whose future is hanging by a thread.

Cammell Laird on the Mersey is seeking to axe nearly 300 workers. There is real anger among the workforce who should be celebrating and looking forward to a secure future after winning a massive contract to maintain ships for the Royal Navy.

Instead Cammell Laird bosses are using the excuse of a gap in work for the jobs cull, leaving workers fearful of being put out of work to be replaced by agency labour at a later date. Since the last round of job cuts over two years ago, more and more agency workers on “flexible” contracts have been brought in to work on the likes of the RSS Sir Richard Attenborough at the Birkenhead shipyard.

Unite members though have said enough is enough and mounted a vigorous campaign in defence of their jobs, including a massive vote in favour of strike action at Cammell Laird, as they call for the tide against casualisation to be turned. The ship workers on the Mersey, like the Appledore ship workers on the Torridge, have embraced the support of their local communities who recognise the value of skilled shipbuilding jobs.

In Belfast too, Unite and the community stands behind the workers at Harland & Wolff, an iconic shipyard whose giant cranes named Samson and Goliath tower over the city’s skyline.

As with other yards they face uncertainty because of the British government’s laissez-faire approach that could see the loss of vital shipbuilding skills lost for a generation and leave a yawning capability gap in the UK shipbuilding industry.

It is imperative that the government changes course and makes support for these yards and the wider British shipbuilding a keystone of any post-Brexit industrial strategy.

Bringing forward the Type 31e frigate programme and block-building the navy’s solid support vessels in UK yards would sustain shipbuilding communities across the UK, supporting decent skilled jobs and apprenticeships for the future. It’s a no brainer, the benefits of which could be felt across the whole of the country by using UK design, components and steel.

Unite will not rest in our fight for jobs and our campaign to secure a better future for UK shipbuilding.

It is time for Gavin Williamson and Business Secretary Greg Clark to heed the calls of shipbuilding communities and stopped navel gazing. It is time the British government brought certainty to the lives of ship builders by making a firm commitment to back our centuries-old naval shipbuilding tradition by building ships paid for by British taxpayers here in Britain.

Steve Turner is assistant general secretary of Unite.

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