Defence Secretary Ben Wallace today fuelled hopes a £1.5billion deal to build Royal Navy supply ships will go to a British yard.
The Cabinet Minister dropped the biggest hint yet that three Fleet Solid Support vessels would be built in the UK, boosting jobs and industry.
Speaking at Defence Questions in the Commons, he said: “British shipbuilding, British yards produce some of the best ships in the world and we should support them as best we can and make sure our Navy get some great British-made kit.”
Labour MP Kevan Jones, a former Defence Minister who chairs Parliament’s cross-party group for shipbuilding and ship repair, urged him to “bring forward the procurement of the Fleet Solid Support ships, because this would not only be increasing the capability of the Royal Navy, but also it would be a big boost to UK plc, including the supply chain in the North East of England, if that deal was placed with a UK yard”.
Revealing he had pushed Whitehall officials to speed-up the competition, Mr Wallace added: “I am keen that this gets underway as soon as possible – and indeed, have asked officials to bring it forward from their proposed date.”
The vital vessels will resupply Royal Navy aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates with food, ammunition and explosives.
For national security reasons, Royal Navy warships can only be built in the UK.
But because the supply ships will be part of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, they are not classed as warships – meaning they could be built abroad.
The competition for the contract was initially offered worldwide, with companies from Italy, Spain, Japan and South Korea shortlisted along with a UK consortium.
The British team, backed by the Keep Britain Afloat campaign, included Babcock, BAE Systems, Cammell Laird and Rolls-Royce.
But the prospect of building British naval ships abroad when the UK was leaving the EU and reasserting itself globally horrified campaigners and triggered a split in government.
The tendering process was halted suddenly in November – raising hopes the terms could be reset to boost British firms’ chances of winning the deal.
The Mirror revealed in May how experts then believed the UK was favourite to win the contract.
A Whitehall spending watchdog last month(JUN) said a lack of Navy support vessels will hamper Britain’s two new £6.2billion aircraft carriers.
“The MoD has made slow progress developing three new support ships, which are crucial to Carrier Strike’s operation,” said the National Audit Office.
“It has only one ship able to resupply the carriers with the supplies they need, such as ammunition and food.
“The MoD has long been aware that this will restrict Carrier Strike, and the cancellation of a recent competition to build new supply ships – because of concerns over value for money – mean they will not be available until the late 2020s.”
Mr Wallace last night(MON) told MPs that once the order was placed, the vessels could be delivered quickly.
“The plus side is that these are not highly complex,” he said.
“Once the competition happens and it is placed I don’t think it will take a long time for them to build.
“I don’t anticipate a capability gap at all.”