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Unions demand new support ships for aircraft carriers are British-built

Alan Tovey
·3-min read
Royal Navy aircraft carrier
Royal Navy aircraft carrier

Shipbuilding unions are demanding assurances that construction of new ships to support the Navy’s aircraft carriers will go to British yards, rather than being farmed out abroad.

The call comes after the Fleet Solid Support (FSS) vessels that carry stores such as ammunition and food were reclassified as warships, meaning they had to be built in the UK.

Security concerns mean warships must be constructed in Britain. However, until the policy change ministers said FSS ships could be constructed abroad as they were not warships and part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, even though they sail alongside the Navy.

Unions are worried that despite the reclassification, large chunks of work on the £1.5bn contract for up to three 40,000-tonne ships could go abroad, with only the final assembly of “blocks” into finished ships taking place in Britain.

Last month, The Telegraph revealed how foreign companies were invited to take part in “market engagement” about the contract as the Ministry of Defence (MoD) tried to get it under way.

Ian Waddell, general-secretary of the Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, said he “welcomed the reclassification” that could create 1,800 UK jobs. It is the only major naval construction project in the pipeline.

Yet he warned the change did not necessarily mean all the work would be carried out at home.

“The Government is encouraging the involvement of overseas shipyards, which means there is the potential for a foreign-led consortium to win the contract,” he said.

“If this is the case then any future contract will need to guarantee work in every shipyard,” he added. “It will need to be relentlessly policed by the MoD as the precedent set by foreign-owned companies promising UK workshare has shown that promises are not always kept.”

The union said the work could be divided up, with shipyards around the UK getting a chunk as they each built blocks.

This would follow recommendations laid out on the government-commissioned National Shipbuilding Strategy led by industry veteran Sir John Parker three years ago.

He recommended sharing the work among shipyards around the country to ensure they had a steady stream of contracts, ending expensive “boom and bust” cycles for UK shipbuilding.

Workers demonstrate against the threat of closure at the Harland and Wolff shipyard before its last-gasp rescue in 2019 - Rebecca Black/PA
Workers demonstrate against the threat of closure at the Harland and Wolff shipyard before its last-gasp rescue in 2019 - Rebecca Black/PA

Sir John criticised the lack of regular contracts that resulted in expensive scaling up and down of yards as naval programmes ended with no more work in sight. This cycle ultimately made British shipbuilding less competitive as well as slower, he found.

The FSS was initially offered internationally under EU tendering rules. Companies in Italy, Spain, Japan and South Korea were shortlisted, along with British consortium “Team UK”, which included Babcock, BAE Systems, Cammell Laird and Rolls-Royce.

The tender was suddenly halted in November because none of the contenders could meet the budget.

Team UK is understood to still be interested, along new group, “Team Resolute”, a group made up of UK designer BMT, Belfast-based shipyard Harland & Wolff, which has recently come out of administration, and Spanish shipbuilder Navantia.