ACCUSATIONS of ‘betrayal’ were last night fired towards Whitehall after fears three supply ships for the navy’s new aircraft carriers would be built in Spain – not the UK.
Defence officials are still working out who will claim the £1bn contract to construct the new ‘solid support ships’ for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA).
The 35,000-tonne vessels will one day ferry ammunition and food to the Royal Navy’s two giant supercarriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, both of which will be based in Portsmouth.
However, The News can today reveal a growing sense of unease within the nation’s top shipbuilding firms over the government’s ‘eagerness’ to ditch British yards in favour of foreign ones to construct the vessels.
Insiders have claimed Spain could well be at the front of the queue of a line-up of other nations keen to clinch the lucrative contract.
Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials last night declined to comment on this and said any decision about where the vessels would be built was well over a year away.
However, Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, leader of Portsmouth City Council, said there was a clear level of concern among industry executives following a conference with maritime chiefs at the Guildhall last month.
‘The decision to not ring-fence the construction of the three new RFA ships to be built in British yards is a significant problem and one that is incredibly concerning,’ he said.
‘These are highly complex ships carrying quantities of munitions, so they have to be very powerfully built, and be able to be in a war zone and yet the government are choosing to probably allow them to be built in Spain.’
The news comes as the Spanish navy continues its aggressive push into British waters off the coast of Gibraltar.
In the past few months, Spaniards have illegally entered British territorial waters and demanded other vessels to leave.
Only last week, a tiny Royal Navy patrol ship was forced to intercept the Spanish warship Infanta Cristina in a tense two-hour stand-off.
Stephen Sedgwick, who lived on Gibraltar for 32 years before moving to Portsmouth, was sickened that Spain could be in the running to build the British ships.
He said people in his beloved British territory felt ‘betrayed’ by the government for ‘even considering it’.
The 48-year-old, of Malta Road, Buckland, said: ‘If Britain awards this contract to Spain it will be a kick in the teeth for British industry and an even bigger one for Gibraltar.
‘It will send a clear message to Spain that shows Britain really doesn’t care what they do, how many times they infringe on British waters or threaten Gibraltar – they will still get multi-million pound contracts to build RFA ships helping the Royal Navy
‘It’s a disgusting and a complete betrayal of all the British workmen.’
This month will see yet another one of the UK’s yards closing. Appledore, in Devon, will be shutting shop after 164 years – in a move set to echo the closure of Portsmouth’s own historic shipbuilding trade several years ago.
Steve Turner, assistant general secretary at Unite union, told The News: ‘Awarding the contract for the design, engineering and manufacturing of the navy’s three new RFA ships to an overseas shipyard would be a gross betrayal of the UK’s world-class shipbuilders.
‘Not only would it rob our manufacturing and shipbuilding communities of secure decent jobs for generations to come, it would deprive the treasury of tax revenues from businesses and workers alike.’
An MoD spokesman said they were ‘required by law to procure’ the three fleet solid support ships ‘through open international competition’. He added: ‘The competition began in 2018 and there are currently five potential bids, including one from a UK consortium.’
A final decision on the winning bid will be made in 2020.