Lord West of Spithead, the former First Sea Lord, said there was “not enough money in the MoD” to start construction of Type 26 frigates on schedule, and warned the risk of a gap in the Royal Navy’s capabilities was “bloody dangerous”.
Giving evidence at the House of Commons Defence Committee, the Labour peer accused the UK Government of “being economical with the actualité” over the likely two-year delay to the start of construction on the frigates, which had been due to begin this year.
The bottleneck means 2,300 workers at the Govan and Scotstoun shipyards on the Clyde risk being underemployed until 2018, with unions warning of job cuts and the loss of vital defence engineering skills. Three offshore patrol vessels are currently being built on the Clyde in an attempt to fill the gap in work.
Unions and the SNP accused the government of failing to honour promises made during the Scottish independence referendum when news of the delays emerged earlier this year.
The managing director of frigate contractor BAE Systems refused to speculate on when the construction would begin, insisting they are still in “detailed negotiations with the MoD”.
Lord West told MPs any delay in replacing the Royal Navy’s 19 ageing frigates and destroyers would mean the Royal Navy’s strength would be “grossly inadequate” to respond to global threats and incidents.
The UK needs as many as 30 frigates and destroyers, he told MPs. “If you’ve got one of something, it can only be in one place. Lots of things happen around the world, and you need one of something in all of them,” he said.
Lord West dismissed suggestions that changes to the design of anti-submarine warfare systems on board the frigates were behind the delays.
Asked by SNP MP Douglas Chapman whether there were “any technical or design problems that necessitate that delay in the production,” he replied: “There’s almost no money available this year, and we are really strapped next year.
“The Government aren’t coming clean about that.”
He added: “To pretend that you’re going to order all of these, that they are really important, but that ‘there are little problems over design and things’ is, I’m afraid, being economical with the actualité.
“We’ve run out of money effectively, and therefore they have pushed this programme to the right.”
Duncan McPhee, Unite manual convener at Scotstoun, said: “We’re very concerned because we thought we would be starting the Type 26 programme basically this year, and now we’re being told that there is a delay - particularly on the manufacturing part of it - until late 2017.
“That means you’re talking quarter one of 2018 before manufacturing starts in any meaningful way. We have got a workforce geared up for the Type 26 programme obviously working on the offshore patrol vessels at the moment.”
An MOD spokesman said: “Over the next decade we will spend around £8 billion on Royal Navy warships and, because Scotland voted to remain part of the UK, the Clyde will continue to be an important manufacturing base for them.”