Falklands 'peril' from BAE closure

Shutting its shipyard in Portsmouth will hit the security of the islands, say MPs and trade union
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The Independent Online

An unlikely coalition of right-wing MPs and union leaders have warned this weekend that the security of the Falkland Islands would be compromised by shutting BAE Systems' shipbuilding operations in Portsmouth.

The defence giant seems certain to confirm early in the new year that Portsmouth, where the Mary Rose was built, will be closed due to a lack of future work, costing up to 1,500 jobs.

BAE has been building two Queen Elizabeth class warships worth a combined £5bn in Portsmouth and in two yards on the River Clyde, but after the middle part of this decade there is a lull until the Type 26 Global Combat ship programme is under way.

Gary Cook, the regional GMB officer who looks after employee relations at the Portsmouth yard, said: "We've barely enough ships to secure the Falklands at the moment. What with the Argentinian economy where it is and oil having been found, do we really want to go cap-in-hand to the French to borrow some ships if we need to protect them?"

There is also a concern that the job losses would mean rare, vital skills are lost to the nation. As a result, even if shipbuilding demand did increase again BAE would be unable to find sufficient staff to undertake the orders.

Sir Gerald Howarth, the former defence minister and a Conservative MP in Hampshire, said the government must ensure that "the defence of the realm" is not undermined by BAE's decision.

However, data supplied by consultant LEK is understood to have showed BAE that keeping three yards open is economically challenging at best. This information is thought to have been passed on to business secretary Vince Cable during a visit to the defence group's Portsmouth facilities last week.

Sir Gerald said: "We are a maritime nation with 92 per cent of our trade being by sea. Therefore maintaining our position on the high seas, protecting our trade routes, and defending our interests, not least the Falklands, is important."

Separately, a team led by former Ministry of Defence mandarin Admiral Sir Robert Walmsley produced a report suggesting Portsmouth is the most likely shipbuilding operation to be axed. Defence secretary Philip Hammond has been considering Sir Robert's findings for several months.

A closure will be a reminder of the difficulties facing the defence market, two months after BAE's merger with Airbus-owner EADS was blocked by the German government.