Difficult questions about defence spending will be back on the agenda over the coming week.
A parliamentary debate, today, once again puts the spotlight on the government’s shipbuilding plans. This follows on from a steady drip of embarrassing news stories about the lack of resources for the armed forces over the past few months.
Britain has world-class defence and shipbuilding industries. Thousands of jobs and small businesses across the supply chain, as well as our armed services, rely on the success of our shipbuilding industry. But, the industry needs a government in Westminster that is on its side. The government has published a national shipbuilding strategy that includes many positive aspirations. However, the omission of defence from the government’s industrial strategy plans will have set alarm bells ringing. It was a missed opportunity to talk up British skills and to secure a long-term future for our ship yards.
Our members in Prospect are very familiar with the challenges that lie ahead of them. These dedicated employees are dealing with the dual challenges of plugging a £20 billion funding “black hole” while trying to maintain the UK’s global defence position.
By failing to provide specific detail on funding the government is implicitly stating that defence is low down the political agenda. This needs to change.
Ministers should make a swift decision on the procurement process for five new Type 31e frigates.
Prospect supports the government’s plan to build these in a modular fashion, spreading the work around the UK. Britain has the naval yards that can build these ships, but the clock is ticking.
Ministers need to take rapid action to secure jobs and keep the navy served with the best infrastructure. These actions would demonstrate a renewed commitment to the armed forces. The government could provide even more stability by committing to a building the new fleet solid support ships in the UK instead of sending the work to South Korea. The government should balance the value of sending taxpayers money abroad against generating regional economies by awarding contracts to UK based companies especially if state subsidies are used to support international competitors. There should be a level playing field
By backing British shipbuilding, the government would be showing how seriously it takes defence both at home and to the rest of the world.
Underlying all of this is the urgent need to increase the proportion of our GDP we spend on keeping our country safe. World Bank figures show that since the end of the Cold War, defence spending has averaged at 2.4 per cent of GDP, but now stands at just 1.8 per cent, failing even to meet the minimum Nato requirement.
The UK’s capacity to build its own equipment is absolutely vital. The benefits are not only to the armed forces, but also to the wider UK economy. The defence sector directly employs 142,000 staff and, between 2010-14, the UK benefitted from an average of £7.7bn in exports. If we do not reverse the current trajectory of defence spending then our sovereign capability in defence is at risk.
It is time for the government to listen to the armed forces, the industry, the workforce, the public and their own MPs and do what is right for the defence industry and for Britain. l Mike Clancy is general secretary of engineering and defence union Prospect