First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned David Cameron against a “betrayal” of workers as she visited BAE Systems on the Clyde yesterday to hear concerns about the feared impact of a one-year delay to construction of a fleet of new Type 26 frigates.
The pledge to build the warships on the Clyde was central to the UK government’s case for Scotland remaining in the UK during the independence referendum campaign of 2014.
Defence minister Philip Dunne told MPs yesterday the future of shipbuilding on the Clyde is secure with eight new Type 26 frigates in the pipeline and two offshore patrol vessels to be manufactured on the Clyde yards to secure work in the immediate future.
But unions fear that the delay to the warships set out in a recent review into UK shipbuilding will mean the jobs of up to 800 of the 2,000-strong workforce could be put in jeopardy.
Union leaders last night warned they could “rule nothing out” in their fight to defend shipbuilding and even indicated that a return to the industrial strife which accompanied the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders dispute of the 1970s could be looming.
Mr Dunne told MPs yesterday: “I understand the strong interest in the timing of the award of the contract to build Type 26 global combat ships, and I also understand that reports of delays create anxiety.
“But let me assure the shipyard workers on the Clyde – this government remains absolutely committed to the Type 26 programme and to assembling the ships on the Clyde and is working closely with BAE Systems to take the Type 26 programme forward, ensuring that it is progressed on a sustainable and stable footing.”
But he stopped short of guaranteeing that there would be no redundancies on the Clyde, despite opposition MPs calling on him to do this. The minister also refused to indicate when work would start.
“We will be proceeding with construction of eight warships on the Clyde as and when the programme is ready to do so.”
His claim the shipbuilding programme will proceed as set out in the strategic defence and security review has prompted fears over the timescale.
The GMB union has claimed 800 jobs could go if work which had been expected to begin later this year is delayed.
The union said it had been told during briefings by BAE Systems last week that work would not now begin until 2017 and raised concerns it will be carried out over a longer period and require fewer workers.
Mr Dunne yesterday confirmed the demonstration phase for the Type-26 frigate was being extended until June 2017. The original plan to order 13 of the new Type-26 anti-submarine frigates was downgraded to eight in last year’s defence review.
The First Minister met trade union representatives at Govan shipyard yesterday and has now written to David Cameron calling for a “cast-iron commitment” that the Type 26 contract will be delivered as promised.
She added: “A series of claims were made by the Tories and Labour during the referendum about employment at these yards and we will do everything in our power to hold the Tories to their promises.
“It would be a complete betrayal of these yards if there was any U-turn or going back on promises made. We already know that David Cameron is trying to avoid Scotland during this election campaign – but he can’t avoid his obligation to the workers on the Clyde.”
As the independence debate raged in 2013, Mr Cameron told Scots: “Scottish defence jobs are more secure as part of the United Kingdom.”
Scottish Secretary David Mundell said the UK government is “absolutely committed” to shipbuilding on the Clyde, and to the Type 26 programme.
But the Unite trade union last night said its shop stewards from the Scotstoun and Govan shipyards on the Clyde, as well as Rosyth, are fearful that nearly half of the 2,000 workforce could be lost as part of the defence review.
Union chiefs last night warned they could “rule nothing out” as part of their campaign to defend shipbuilding.
Unite national officer Ian Waddell said; “Defence ministers in Westminster should not underestimate their anger or the feeling of betrayal which has resulted from the government’s backtracking and BAE’s review.
“Our stewards today have signalled that they will not stand by and allow shipbuilding on the Clyde to be hollowed out and the UK stripped of its ability to make its own warships.”
Unite Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty accused the UK government of “behaving dishonourably” in failing to live up to promises made in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum two years ago.
“Hundreds of jobs are now at risk because of this review which has resulted from broken promises and backsliding by defence ministers,” he said.
GMB Scotland secretary Gary Smith said: “We’ve gone from promised investment that would secure thousands of skilled jobs and hundreds of apprenticeships for a generation, only to be told to prepare for redundancies.”
But Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said: “If the Tory government delivers anything short of what they promised, then it will be a deep betrayal to the workers on the Clyde and their families.”
Scottish Lib Dem Willie Rennie said: “There are serious concerns about the future of the orders at the yard and it’s important that the Conservative government gives an absolute commitment to them.”
Scottish Greens co-convener Patrick Harvie said: “It’s clear the UK government must urgently clarify the timescales involved.”