Friday, 8 November 2013

Why Naval Policy Should be Better Off in Liberal Hands

I don't feel I owe Nigel Farage anything (does anyone?) but he proved useful this week when his appearance on Question Time (which was otherwise less than scintillating) dished up the news nugget that the Ministry of Defence had given supply ship construction contracts to  Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering's yards in Korea in a £452m contract for four tankers in early 2012. Quite rightly one can feel that this was an event that goes quite a way towards explaining this week's "rationalisation" of the Portsmouth naval shipyard. 

This sent me scurrying for the back story and indeed it was back in February last year that the the original deal was announced by the then Tory Defence Minister, Peter Luff.

The story was reported here:

Interestingly at the very end of the article, the writer made the comment: 
"Last month the Mail told how BAE Systems was considering closing the naval dockyard in Portsmouth as part of a review of its warship business, bringing to an end 800 years of shipbuilding".

I am not in the business of affording the mail with prescience but they certainly got it right there. Maybe one of their Tory cronies was using them to break it gently to the public, but then again the article was nothing but gentle. 

While recent days have seen the government hiding in the Fuhrer Bunker sending our hand-scribbled messages saying "don't blame us, its a commercial decision", as usual a bit of scratching shows that the thin gruel of the current shipbuilding program was going overseas verily as the Portsmouth shipyard was already under threat. This is the disgrace of the current turn of events.

Frankly while I am not warming to BAE I can also say that the real blame now most definitely lies with the Tory-controlled MoD. Sounds like an even better reason for the re-establishment of the Admiralty as a separate ministry for it is pretty obvious that the mandarins of Whitehall would NOT have got their way if the relationship between decision makers and the Royal Navy had been at less of a remove as it is in the monolithic and army-centric MoD. 

The author of this bright idea was Peter Luff who was then Minister of Defence and is now heading towards retirement in 2015. Meanwhile the country is potentially left without a naval shipyard.

At the time the Mail reported that "Critics said the decision was a blow to Britain’s declining shipbuilding industry and to the proud naval tradition of what was once the world’s greatest seafaring nation". 

The anonymous critics (maybe Tories?) also were reported as having accused: ".... the Government of ‘shameless hypocrisy’ after David Cameron criticised India earlier this month for snubbing British industry when it awarded a £13billion deal to supply 126 fighter jets to France".

Clearly DC is not averse to playing the role of the pot calling the kettle black. But once again where were the leaders of the LibDems on all this? Throwing up their hands and saying "not our bailiwick!" as they did this week? Or hiding somewhere and saying "thank god, we don't have a defense policy of our own"? 

The four Military Afloat Reach and Sustainability (Mars) tankers, from which helicopters will be able to operate, are due to enter service from 2016. They are, ostensibly, being bought ‘off-the-shelf’ from South Korea and will maintain the Navy’s ability to refuel warships at sea and will provide support for amphibious and land forces close to shore. They are intended to replace single-hulled Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, which were built in the 1960s.

The new 37,000-ton vessels are 650 ft long and can pump enough fuel to fill two Olympic-size swimming pools each hour.

The Ministry of Defence covered its posterior by saying that several British companies expressed an interest in building the tankers but none submitted a final bid for the contract.

A source close to the Defence Minister initially said there was no capacity to build the tankers in UK dockyards. The Daily Mail said this claim was denied by shipbuilding firms. The source also said there was ‘no proven track record’ of building tankers in the UK, even though the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Ships had clearly been built in the UK back in the 1960s.

The Mail quoted a defence industry deepthroat saying: ‘The MoD made it clear they wanted a commercial tanker and from day one it was as plain as the nose on your face that no UK company could compete against the low labour costs.’

At the time, Luff said British firms "would benefit from £150 million of associated contracts including providing navigation systems and equipment for the tankers". Gosh, isn't this an old saw we have heard before. Does this claim, more than 18 months on stand up to any sort of scrutiny?

In an example of tautological gymnastics that was clearly one of the reasons he is no longer Minster of Defence he said, the deal "demonstrated the best value for money for the taxpayer and that ‘complex’ warships would still be built in Britain". When in fact he is saying that a commercial tanker, which is much simpler to build than a "complex" vessel is better off built elsewhere. By inference, Britain is keeping the value-added work and the Asians can built the simple stuff. When it looks like Britain will pretty soon not be building anything.

Let's ask the workers at Portsmouth whether they feel insulted to be building "mere" tankers when the alternative is the dole queue and the extinction of more of the skills base.

Our party has a policy on apprenticeships that it has been trumpeting lately and yet how does that gel with shutting down one of the major engineering skill-bases in the south of the country (not to mention the cuts in Scotland). Even if Nick et al. cannot get their brains around a naval policy maybe they could see a light to stir them from their slumbers and go into bat for the foreshadowed damage to apprenticeships that the closures in Portsmouth (et al.) will result in. 

To reiterate the obvious yet again.. we should have a policy that the Portsmouth yard should be returned to Royal Navy ownership/control and that, if the Tories aren't interested in the Navy then the portfolio be given to the Liberals to manage. 

After all could we do any worse of a job than Fox, Luff and Hammond...?

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