THOUSANDS have backed calls for a £1bn contract to build three new support ships for the Royal Navy's huge new aircraft carriers to be given to a UK yard, not a foreign one.
The new batch of vessels will form the naval sidearm the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and are needed to ferry vital supplies to HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.
However, as revealed by The News earlier this month, fears are growing among defence circles that the huge construction project may slip through the fingers of Britain’s shipyards, instead being picked up by foreign firms – chiefly in Spain.
Now more than 12,600 people have backed a plea to Whitehall demanding the lucrative vessels are built by British workers.
So far, a conglomerate of British defence firms are being pitted against four international bidders for the work.
It’s hoped the British group will clinch the contract and prop up Britain’s shipbuilding industry, which was dealt a crushing blow this month by the closure of the historic Appledore shipyard in Devon.
Calls by campaigners come off the back of a letter by Dr Julian Lewis, chairman of the UK’s defence committee, to defence procurement minister Stuart Andrew in which he demanded to know why the new RFA ships were classified as ‘non combatants’.
Vessels classed as combatant warships – aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates – must be built in Britain for national security purposes. But those that fall outside of this can be sent to international tender.
Andrew Tiller, who set up the petition, said other countries build their naval vessels and support ships in-house and questioned why Britain couldn’t too.
He added: ‘The construction of warships and minesweepers for the navy and support ships for the RFA should allow a thriving shipbuilding industry in the UK.
‘But the government applies a narrow definition of what constitutes a warship, recently three RFA ships were built in South Korea, three more ships have been put out to international tender.
‘Very few other countries will allow their industrial base to be hollowed out like this.’
The petition has gathered so much momentum that it prompted a response from the government. However, it still has a long way to go to reach the 100,000 marker before it is considered for debate in parliament.
Stephen Morgan, Portsmouth South MP, said he was ‘deeply disappointed’ international firms were able to bid for the work.
He said: ‘The construction of these British ships is an important opportunity for the nation to showcase its expertise and would bring a welcome boost to the economy at a time of such uncertainty.’
Responding, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said the government was ‘highly supportive’ of Britain’s shipbuilding industry. But it insisted there was no ‘national security reasons’ to ‘limit’ the vessels’ construction.
‘The ships which meet this criteria are frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers,’ the MoD said. ‘The UK needs these type of ships to be designed, built and maintained in the UK so that, in times of war, we are not reliant on any other nation to carry out these activities on our behalf. In this way we protect our national security.’
The MoD added: ‘The fleet solid support ships are not warships and there is no national security reason to limit their construction to the UK.’