The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, the Prime Minister.
10 Downing Street
11 June 2020
Dear Prime Minister,
I have always made the case that the only way to improve our national resilience and increase our capabilities is through partnership between public, private and third sectors. We have hundreds of brilliant not for profit organisations that make up the backbone of our national resilience and international humanitarian assistance, from map making, to medical care, search and rescue to veterinary training. If we used our ODA funding to better support such partnerships we could do so much more at home and overseas. As Secretary of State at DFID, and then at Defence, I made the case for better blending the ODA budget with private and social sector funding. Now as your civil contingencies minister and with responsibility for the cross-government ODA funds I will continue to make that case.
However, I also wanted to write to you in my capacity as the MP for Portsmouth North to ask you to, again, give consideration to such a partnership to increase our maritime assets.
The challenges our nation faces will require us to have a greater maritime presence. From the need to protect our coastal waters, the threats we face to shipping, the desire to have a greater presence in certain parts of the world, to the massive workload of the Royal Navy.
The unprecedented strain on the public purse we will face in the coming years requires us to make better use of the funds we do have, and lever in more from outside the public sector.
We need a steady drumbeat in our remaining ship halls to make production viable and to keep industry investing in skills and innovation. It is a sovereign capability we cannot lose. We need a greater number of sea-time opportunities for the next generation of mariners to properly train and qualify, and we need more platforms so that we are not taking grey hulls off vital tasking to provide ships for humanitarian or diplomatic missions.
As I have discussed before, the concept of highly flexible vessels that could be part-funded from the ODA budget in partnership with private, research, commercial and charitable funds could help meet all these objectives. In 2018 whilst at DFID I scoped a UK Aid Maritime capability. This would be ODA eligible and, in effect, a floating DFID office. Our scoping work examined options to fund it and the specification. An initial survey of other Government departments and agencies indicated they could and would make use of such a vessel. We know that industry would also support as would a growing coalition of commercial and trade ventures, research organisations, shipbuilders and ship support companies, maritime training organisations and medical and health projects. These vessels have been rightly seen as a successor to the Royal Yacht Britannia. Given the level of interest, it may be possible to generate income from the vessels.
They would provide a safe and secure environment for personnel and resources to deploy close to operational areas. It could be a highly flexible facility that can provide a range of medical, administrative, training, communication and logistic services. It could undertake sustained operations or be redeployed to support locally dispersed initiatives. It could operate as a university hospital, rotating medical staff. For longer-term crisis, it would make us less reliant on less auditable local routes to provide relief. It would be able to deploy offshore in international waters, in geo-politically sensitive operational areas as well as our own coastal water should the need arise. It has the potential to become a centre for UK volunteering. It could be used in times of strain by the Royal Navy, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, border force or other agencies and departments, for example, the FCO for repatriation missions.
It would be a UK flagged, controlled and auditable asset and should seek to be aligned with our shipbuilding ambitions.
The concept has attracted much support including from UK-Med, Britannia Maritime Aid and the Florence Nightingale Foundation whose nurses and midwives are keen to help.
Now more than ever we need to be smarter in how we use public funds to further our national interests. Retaining and developing shipbuilding and its support industries will be an important part of the levelling up agenda for many parts of the UK, and this initiative would keep some yards open.
The potential of such a scheme is well established, but now the Government needs to develop those options. As long as this issue is seen through the prism of one department it will not become a reality. I ask that in your reprioritisation of ODA this and other concepts which have the potential to lever in further funds, create jobs, retain capabilities, and deliver on our ambitions for Global Britain are made a reality. A good next step would be to refit an existing vessel to test the concept.
Now is the time to be bold and creative. To think about what we actually need and how we can deliver on it with a reduced budget.
I would be delighted if you would ask Ministers to take this forward and, although such vessels should always be deployed if Portsmouth were to be their base port!
Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt MP
Download a copy of the letter here