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The programme to build two new aircraft carriers — HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales — as well as the vital Type 26 Frigate programme have shown that the United Kingdom has a shipbuilding industry with the skills, technical knowhow and capability to design and build ships of the most complex type.
Despite this, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has announced an international competition to design and build three Fleet Solid Support (FSS) ships, vessels that will deliver vital supplies to the Carrier Strike Fleet, citing EU regulations as the reason for the competition.
The Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU) believes the MoD’s approach is fundamentally flawed and could spell the end for many UK shipyards that enjoyed a renaissance during the carrier-build programme, as blocks for the ships were built all over the UK before final assembly at Rosyth.
As the carrier-build programme comes to an end, UK shipyards need new orders with work to keep them open, or we face closures and job losses, with the loss of skills and apprenticeships which will surely follow.
The FSS ships will be armed with defensive weapons; they will carry armed Lynx helicopters and parties of marines; they will operate in warzones and carry out Royal Navy patrols.
In every sense they are warships, an important distinction that exempts the UK from having to put the build out to competition.
France, Germany, Italy and Spain have all built smaller ships with similar duties to FSS — all were built in their own countries, despite EU “competition regulations.”
These ships are also involved in humanitarian, rescue and anti-piracy work of which we have a proud and honourable record.
The international shipbuilding industry is not a level playing field.
Most of the competitors are either directly state owned or have been bailed out and subsidised by their governments.
UK shipyards, which for years were part of the backbone of UK trade unionism, cannot compete on the same basis as foreign yards that receive state support and subsidy and the MoD should recognise that.
The UK shipbuilding industry has the experience of building large, complex ships, garnered through the Aircraft Carrier Alliance. None of our competitors has built a large, complex military vessel like this in recent years, so awarding the contract overseas risks delays and cost over-runs through inexperience and lack of skills.
For all these reasons an “international competition” for these three important ships makes no sense whatsoever.
But perhaps the most compelling reason to build FSS here is the contribution it would make to the UK’s manufacturing industry and prosperity.
At 45,000 tonnes each, these three ships are equivalent in size to the two aircraft carriers and the contract could be worth over £1 billion.
The CEEU also argues they should be built using British made steel and if specified, 130,000 tonnes could make a significant impact on a struggling steel industry as Jeremy Corbyn argued convincingly recently on his welcome visit to our Scottish shipyards.
Workers in UK shipyards and their supply chains would pay tax and National Insurance as would their employers.
We calculate at least a 20 per cent return to the Treasury, reducing the net price of £1bn to £800 million. French research shows a long-term economic multiplier for defence shipbuilding of 1.35 — so on a £1bn project, £1.35bn of economic benefit is returned.
UK shipbuilding was devastated in the 1980s and ’90s because of boom and bust order books.
The government has the chance to create certainty, stimulate investment, protect jobs, skills and apprenticeships and drive economic benefit and prosperity if it builds FSS here — or choose — as the Tories are prone to do, to hand all of that to a foreign country in pursuit of a “market knows best” dogma.
It’s time they stood up for decent jobs, British steel and technology and a highly skilled unionised workforce.
The campaign hashtag is #BuildThemInBritain
Ian Waddell is general secretary of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions whose affiliates include Unite, GMB, Prospect and Community.
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