Skip to main content

Shipping (Safety)

Volume 927: debated on Monday 7 March 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

11.52 p.m.

In raising the important and serious subject of the recent tragic events surrounding the "Globtik Venus", I wish to draw attention to a matter which was put to me by the General Secretary of the National Union of Seamen, Mr. Slater, of which the British maritime industry will not be proud. The sad story is somewhat different from some of the garbled accounts that the public has received in recent days.

It is important to begin at the beginning. The arch-evil underlying the present position is what is known in the seafaring and maritime circles as the flag of convenience trade. That practice has grown up since before the war. After the war, a number of ship-owning companies found it to their advantage to register their companies and ships in countries other than their country of origin. They thereby assumed a flag for their ships known as a flag of convenience.

Companies adopt this practice for two main reasons: first, to escape paying the going wage rate that has been negotiated by strong trade union organisations in the country concerned, which will often be a country with a long standing and important maritime tradition; and secondly, in order to force the crews of these ships to work under conditions that would not be tolerated in their own countries precisely because strong trade union organisations would see to it that they were not tolerated. The motivation is, therefore, of the worst possible character.

Until very recently, the "Globtik Venus" was sailing under such a flag of convenience. The ship is the subject of a recent internal report written by a branch secretary of the British National Union of Seamen, dated 10th February 1977, from Middlesbrough. When the branch secretary was writing his report after a visit to the "Globtik Venus", the ship was sailing under the flag of the Bahamas. The purpose of the branch secretary's visit was to investigate on behalf of the International Transport Federation, which represents seafaring workers throughout the world and acts through the various trade unions in the affiliated countries. When the ITF needs a job done in Britain and British ports, it asks the National Union of Seamen to do it. This was such an occasion.

The attention of the ITF and, through the ITF, the NUS had been drawn to the fact for a long period the proper rate of wages had not been paid to the crew of the "Globtik Venus". It was the purpose of this visit to establish the facts and to call upon the people in charge of the ship to pay the proper rate and to agree to pay back wages.

To summarise the report received by the headquarters of the NUS in London, it was a pessimistic report, the reply was negative and there seemed no hope of persuading the people in charge of the vessel to pay the proper rate. As the result of this visit, the ship was taken out of the particular flag of convenience under which it was sailing, and it was transferred and registered as a British ship. When the events in Le Havre took place, we were, therefore, dealing with a British vessel, and part of the long-established British maritime fleet. This made an important change in the general position.

Perhaps I may interrupt the hon. Gentleman. Would he explain to me how this matter is related to items 1 and 2 of the subhead with which we are dealing? This is not the usual broad debate of Estimates. It is limited to the increases that are shown. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to develop his argument at great length, but I should be glad if he would now link it with these subheads.

I have quite deliberately developed a little on the point of origin, Mr. Speaker, because it has not been established previously for the public. However, the whole burden of my argument has to do with safety, to which I am coming almost immediately, when it will be shown how it directly relates to the items to which you have just drawn my attention.

We are, therefore, dealing with a British ship in Le Havre. What now becomes most important is to realise that the origin of this conflict and dispute is in the fact that the ITF has asked the NUS, the main British trade union in these matters, to do its normal lawful work, and that in carrying out this work lies the origin of the conflict. It was because of efforts to avoid the obligations of paying proper wages to the crew and establishing proper conditions that the rest followed.

When the ship reached Le Havre, the conflict between the crew and the owners broke out and the strike developed. It was a strike against the background of the demands of the seamen, which had been calculated with the help of the International Transport Federation, as a result of an estimate arrived at by the representatives of the National Union of Seamen and the ITF. This amounted to the fact that Mr. Tikkoo and his company, Globtik Tankers Limited, owed the Filipino crew of the "Globtik Venus" in back wages and severance pay a total sum of 242,000 American dollars. This sum was calculated by taking the amount of time served by each member of the crew, varying from four to 18 months, assessing the amount of under-payment, and adding the totals together.

All the stories that Mr. Tikkoo has spread through the British Press, television and radio, alleging an illegitimate demand made by the Filipino seamen, are completely untrue. They are false allegations against a loyal crew, whose loyalty and efficiency has been attested by their competent officers on a number of occasions. We owe this assessment of what is owed to the Filipino crew of the "Globtik Venus" to the competent trade union officers. Mr. Tikkoo did not live up to his ordinary responsibilities as an employer, in spite of all his protestations to the contrary. He is a bad employer, and because he did not want the British public to know about this, he decided on the desperate course of hiring a gang of armed mercenaries in a particular part of Britain, and sending them across to France in a paramilitary organisation in order to storm the ship. That was done under the pretence of their being a replacement crew, which they were not.

The evidence for that can be seen in the fact that these men were used for one job only—to throw out, attack violently, if necessary, and intimidate the Filipino crew, and throw them off the vessel. These men were not used or retained for any sea-faring purpose, which they were not competent to fulfil anyway. They were taken off again, and are now back in this country. They were paid £200 for the first 48 hours of the operation, and a further £48 per day after that.

Order. I am finding it difficult to relate what the hon. Member is saying to this heading on page 175 of the Supplementary Estimates. The only reference that I can find is to A.1 (1) "Coastguards". Is the hon. Member going to discuss the question of coastguards?

As you will see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, from the wording that I used when I first submitted this subject to the Table Office for debate, the issue hinges on safety, and I am now coming to the matter of safety, which concerns the coastguards, and which makes the debate relevant.

The whole matter was made into a dangerous operation, for which Mr. Tikkoo must take full responsibility. It is a matter about which all those who are concerned for the good name of the British maritime industry must be seriously concerned, be they with the coastguards or with any other part of our maritime industry.

It is at this stage that I want to read into the record the competent opinion of Mr. James Slater, the General Secretary of the National Union of Seamen, on the grave and dangerous implications to safety of this operation organised by Mr. Tikkoo. He said:
"One cannot overestimate the level of safety standards that have to apply to large tankers"—
be they in coastguard waters or on the high seas.
"A prerequisite to any safety standard is the manning of the ship. Without adequately safe manning, one could safely say that the various regulations covering this aspect of British shipping would be breached. After hearing the utterances of Mr. Tikkoo on television, in which he was given the privilege of broadcasting over our national network on the severe hazards which he falsely alleged as applying to the 'Globtik Venus' at the time, he shortly afterwards saw fit to employ an army of mercenaries who forcibly boarded the vessel wielding instruments which were completely in breach of the safety standards"—

Order. I must draw the hon. Member's attention to the fact that under the terms of this Vote he must discuss the reasons for the increase in the Vote. He has, if I might so put it, gone fairly wide in discussing the problem of this ship and the crew, but general considerations on wider issues can be raised only on the July and December Bills, and not on this one. I repeat that the hon. Member should confine himself to the reasons for the increase.

I am coming to the point when I shall ask for Government action. Safety and Government action hang closely together and the one is the reason that leads on to the other. The quotation concludes:

"One has seen, both on television and in photographs in the Press, these armed mercenaries with metal axes, metal chains and other instruments of this kind, of which anyone, either through a blow on the decks, or by dropping them, could have blown the ship sky-high, and could have caused considerable damage to the ship and the port of Le Havre."
This is the way in which Mr. Tikkoo acted and this was the purpose for which he employed armed mercenaries—in contrast to the Filipino crew who, the captain of the ship said, had at all times obeyed and kept the safety regulations. The chief engineer shared that view.

This shameful story leads to only one conclusion—it is a sad day for the proud traditions of British maritime history that such a shameful operation should have been started from these shores against a crew which had been acting in full co-operation with its own trade union.

The hon. Gentleman said that the crew were acting against the traditions of their trade union, but I understood that neither the crew nor the people who took over the ship from them were members of a trade union. Who was breaking whose proud traditions?

Order. Before we become even more involved in this case, I think that I should ask the Minister whether there are other provisions about safety under this Vote. Perhaps he could help the Chair because the debate is going extremely wide.

May I answer the question of the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South (Mr. Parkinson) before you call the Minister, Mr. Deputy Speaker?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman deliberately misunderstood me, but I did not say that the crew acted against trade union traditions. They acted completely in accordance with tradition because the back pay had been assessed by the legitimate trade union involved. It will be a matter for an inquiry to find out what relationship these armed mercenaries had to the seafaring trade.

I call upon the Government, through the Minister who is to reply, to institute a high-level inquiry into this sorry affair and to make an announcement tonight that the Government are prepared to do so. I was present earlier to hear the Attorney-General's welcome announcement that he had asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to give his opinion whether a criminal inquiry is justified. We must leave it to the DPP and the Attorney-General to make a decision on the legal side of it, but whatever the outcome of that inquiry, I am convinced that a Government inquiry is essential and I am reinforced in that view by the TUC's announcement tonight that it is asking for a Government inquiry.

I ask the Government to give us an account of the attitude of the French authorities at Le Havre. It is not clear what their attitude was. Did Her Majesty's Consul do everything possible to prevent this act of violence by British citizens against the crew of a British ship?

I hope that the Government will give satisfactory answers to these questions, and that we shall have a full report, followed by a full debate in the House on this shameful affair.

12.15 a.m.

You have made clear during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson), Mr. Deputy Speaker, the difficulties of dealing in this debate with matters which concern us both. I shall try to follow your interpretation of the Vote. You have said that extra money is being provided for the coastguard and safety services. In relation to the "Globtik Venus," these considerations are very much to the fore, because the Department of Industry is responsible for the enforcement of safety on British vessels and for rescue services.

I am on record as having been critical of the coastguard provision, and I have written to the Minister about the MV "Lovat" inquiry. A number of my constituents lost relatives in that shameful affair, which pointed to inadequate safety provision for our seamen. Although the inquiry ended some time ago, we still await its report and have done so for an inordinate time. I hope that everything possible is being done to bring it forward, so that we may consider its recommendations and possibly even find further resources for improving the coastal services. This is a matter of urgency for the shipping industry and for seafarers, including my constituents.

Safety therefore is at the heart of the "Globtik Venus" affair—although other important considerations are also involved. Our coastguard services are available not just for British seamen but for those of all nationalities who get into difficulties around our shores. The main burden of complaint in the "Globtik Venus" affair is also that in the campaign against flags of convenience ships, unsafe ships and unqualified crews.

OECD records show that flags of convenience ships belong to countries without a maritime tradition who sell their flags to help shipowners with tax evasion, and the purchase of "cheaper" crews. These practices, along with the lack of enforcement of safety standards, have led to twice as many of these ships being lost as is the average for traditional maritime countries. These ships place a burden on the safety and rescue operations around our shores.

The answer is not necessarily an increase in public expenditure. We should strike at the source of the problem—particularly inadequately manned ships, caused by shipowners taking labour where they can get it and thereby increasing the dangers at sea. Often, ships go missing with their complete crews. The countries concerned do not hold inquiries in the traditional sense.

Therefore, the campaign by the trade union movement against flags of convenience relates particularly to safety and to loss of life. In many ways, the trade union movement acts as an enforcement agency for Government safety facilities.

Public expenditure cuts have resulted in a reduction in the numbers of those employed in marine safety enforcement in Britain, whether they be marine surveyors or people employed in the Coastguard Service. This has led to a reduction in standards, and this in turn has had its effect on the rate of accidents and incidents at sea, as the MV "Lovat" inquiry will illustrate.

Because of the steadily reducing amount of Government safety enforcement, the trade union movement plays an important part in the development and maintenance of safety standards in Britain. This debate is part of a general campaign that has been conducted for a number of years by an international trade union movement in an effort to ensure that standards are brought up to the required level. It could be legitimately argued that even greater amounts of money should be proved in order to improve the standards.

This is an international problem. Because the "Globtik Venus" was a flag of convenience ship, it was very difficult for Britain to become involved. Once they began to sail the ship under the British flag, the matter became the responsibility of the Minister and of the House. It was our responsibility to see that standards on the vessel were enforced.

This British ship—the "Globtik Venus"—is, as far as we know, without a crew, although we hear that a crew has been signed on, though not from the traditional source of labour in Britain which would have enabled us to check on the men's qualifications. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us whether the qualifications of the crew are up to the standard he requires the crews of British ships to observe. It is the personnel in his Department who are involved in enforcing these standards.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give us further information which so far we have been unable to glean from other sources. It is crucial, especially as the vessel is a tanker, that we be assured that the standards are adequate. Hon. Members can visualise that these are dangerous vessels if in the hands of inexperienced people. At one stage of this affair a chief engineer was working 24 hours a day in an attempt to maintain the safety standards. He was very concerned about the damage the ship had suffered under attack from the group of mercenaries. I will not call them "seamen", though that is how the newspapers chose to describe them.

These men were engaged in casual employment in an industry which is sometimes used for fishing and sometimes for other things. They were not qualified seamen as the term is understood according to the Merchant Shipping Acts competent to handle a tanker of this size or any other British ship.

The standards for the British fishing industry are almost non-existent. It was therefore misleading of the Press to describe these men as "seamen". They were hired more for their muscle than for their brain. Anybody who has read statements made by these people has just cause for alarm. There must be concern about safety if they are to be hired—as they were reportedly—to go on board ships as British crews.

I have read that some of these men had almost no experience, that they were recruited from the pubs around Humberside. They went on board the tanker with hammers, axes and God knows what else. They were told to remove forcibly the crew who had been hired legitimately.

The Government have recently passed new regulations raising the fines for the offence of smoking on board a tanker. Smoking in certain parts of a tanker can be a serious offence, and the Government have increased the penalties because of their concern for safety. But in the case of the "Globtik Venus" men went charging on board without any regard for safety, and I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us something about the effect on water pipes, machinery, hatches and doors, which, according to reports, were all smashed with axes and hammers—tremendous violence being used without concern for the possible danger to the ship or to the members of the crew at that time, the Filipinos.

One is horrified to think of steel axes being wielded on board a tanker. It needs little imagination to envisage what could happen. Even the water-feeding apparatus on the ship was damaged to such an extent that the boilers were not operating properly, and the maintenance of pressure on board a vessel is an important factor in preserving safety.

I understand the difficulty of keeping within the confines of the Vote, and I readily accept the rule, but I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some information about what happened and about the man involved in hiring the crew. Under our Merchant Shipping Acts, there are certain obligations placed on people who hire seamen to work British ships. In the "Globtik Venus" case, it was Mr. Ravi Tikoo who hired men for the purpose of violently attacking members of the legitimate crew on board a British ship.

I should have thought that Mr. Tikoo committed an act of conspiracy, and I hope that the Minister will comment on that. I assume that Mr. Tikoo makes his policy statements in the name of his company. I hope that others responsible for the company will express a view. I know that several Opposition Members are associated with the company. Perhaps they will make clear their views about the actions of the executive direcfor the company will express a view. I Tikoo. Again, I return to the vital matter of safety. The actions of a man who hired thugs to overthrow the legitimate crew of a British ship—

Order. The hon. Gentleman has been at some pains to keep as closely as possible to the Vote. The Chair understands the difficulty, but it is a point of major importance and the Chair must maintain the course of debate as it should be maintained. I wonder whether the Minister can help by pointing out what safety aspects of shiping are covered by the Supplementary Estimate in addition to the coastguard service.

I was under the impression, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the Estimate covered aspects of safety other than the one to which you have directly referred and in fact covered the very aspects to which my hon. Friend was alluding. Of course, I am in your hands regarding the rather narrow interpretation which you have put on the matter, but, with respect, I submit that it is wider than that.

I am extremely grateful for that intervention and exchange between yourself and the Minister, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It relieves one of the difficult obligation to keep within very narrow terms of reference, and I assure you that I shall not use it as a means of exploiting the situation further.

The main burden of our argument is that we wish to preserve at all costs the safety standards which have been hard won in the British merchant service. They can be maintained by a combination of regulations and laws and the enforcement agencies of the Department, of which the coastguard is only one part. The most important factor in the maintenance of safety at sea is the desire and hope that all those employed in the industry will exercise common sense, bearing in mind at all times the interests of the crew of the vessel—in this case a British ship.

The Merchant Shipping Acts in the main put that obligation on the captain of a vessel. But in this case the captain was confined to his cabin, and he has since left the ship, expressing his view that it was a terrifying situation. We put on the captain of a ship direct responsibility for the safety of his vessel and its crew—indeed, we give him tremendous powers over the crew so that he can exercise his functions. But here we see the captain being overruled by the owner of the company. The captain was ordered to his cabin and guards were put on his door after, it has been reported, he had attempted to order the boarding party off.

The Merchant Shipping Acts make it clear that the captain has responsibility for the safety of the vessel, but in this case the owner, for his own consideration, overruled that responsibility and, either directly or indirectly, ordered that the captain be put into his cabin, with guards on the door, while this murderous boarding party rampaged around the ship smashing parts of it up.

What evidence has the hon. Gentleman that this damage which he claims to have been done was done by the men who boarded the ship and not by the men who were already on board when they arrived from Grimsby to take it over? What evidence has he, as opposed to assertions?

I think that it is generally accepted by the Press and television that the people running about on board armed with axes and hammers were not the Filipino crew. In any case, why should the Filipinos attack their own accommodation and personal possessions'? It would not be reasonable to assume that they did. Most of this damage—[Interruption]—was done—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is replying to an intervention. Let there be no sedentary interventions from other quarters at the same time.

If the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South (Mr. Parkinson) wishes to get further information, he can pass along the Bench to his hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor), who is parliamentary adviser to the company and could probably say exactly what went on. Presumably the hon. Member for Cathcart has had discussions and can give positive information about what we have been saying. If that is so, I am prepared to give way to him. Apparently none is forthcoming, however. My information is generally in line with the understood position, which we have been hearing about from the ship's officers, who are now making statements which may well lead to court proceedings when we have established the case. Surely the hon. Gentleman will support our demand for an inquiry so that we can get the full facts if he makes any contribution to this debate.

We are concerned under this subhead with safety, and it is the trade union movement which is largely responsible for maintaining safety. There have been many Press comments about my own union, the National Union of Seamen. As one of its officials, I spent many years fighting such owners and standards as those involved in the "Globtik Venus" situation. It is not a new situation. It becomes an expensive business for a union, particularly a small one, to attempt to establish a trade union structure in the merchant service, particularly in ships on the other side of the world, where the Department of Trade cannot send inspectors. A considerable burden is imposed on the union in trying to ensure that safety standards, and the qualifications, wages and conditions of the seamen, are maintained. It requires considerable expense and organisation.

My union, the National Union of Seamen, is now attempting to ensure that everyone on a British ship gets the same rates of pay and not separate wages for Asian and European crews. This House passed the legislation discriminating between black and white in respect of wages on board British ships. Thanks to the Minister, who is present tonight, we have taken considerable steps to correct that particular problem.

But it takes a considerable amount of money to develop a structure and organisation. All over the world we have been involved in trying to counteract the pressures of an international business. It requires international action to enforce safety and to bring about the sort of changes that are needed.

I hope people will understand that as a small organisation we have to rely on our international brotherhood. The ITF gives us the standards. There are 350 unions around the world. We shall continue with these actions.

The "Globtik Venus" is only one small part of a major problem that we shall continue to fight against. I hope the House has learned that this problem will continue until we have positive action first with regard to British ships and then with regard to flags of convenience. I hope that the debate tonight will lead to support for an inquiry into this matter. Perhaps we shall get action against Mr. Tikkoo because although there was a lot of baying by Conservative Members about the Shrewsbury Two, and about Clay Cross, there was not a word against a man who has hired thugs against the crew of a British ship.

12.37 a.m.

The House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) for raising this important subject this evening.

Before dealing with the question of the "Globtik Venus", perhaps I might comment upon some of the other matters, not directly relevant to it, that were raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East. He referred to the inquiry concerning the MV "Lovat". I can tell my hon. Friend that we are still awaiting the report of this inquiry. We have stressed the urgency of it and we expect that it will be available sometime about Easter.

My hon. Friend may be particularly interested to learn that we have already taken some action in the light of the evidence revealed during the inquiry, particularly with regard to coal duff cargoes and the replacement of the older cotton fabric life rafts. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree, when all this is revealed, that it was right to have taken that action prior to the publication of the report.

My hon. Friend and I worked together in the days when he was PPS to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment when at the Department of Trade. We have worked together on a number of important matters concerning seafaring problems. Indeed, I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend. When I came to this job I had a knowledge that was somewhat virginal. During the early days when I worked with my hon. Friend my knowledge became enlarged as a result of his practical knowledge as a former seafarer himself.

My hon. Friend will know of my interest in trying to ensure that the safety of seafarers is enlarged constantly and that I am deeply concerned about all the matters to which he referred. He has done a great deal of work for the European Assembly on questions affecting flags of convenience and substandard ships. I have read his written works on these matters with great interest. We have not yet commented specifically on them, but he knows from conversations and correspondence which I have had with him that the points which he has made in a formidable case are being taken very seriously.

It is fair to say that my own Department has raised initiatives at IMCO in respect of substandard ships which have had a very real impact. I am glad that Britain has taken the initiative in that regard. On the wider issue of flags of convenience, I say in general terms that it cannot be for the good of international seafarers that some should take the view that it is legitimate for one reason or another to seek to contract out of the essential legal and other responsibilities. In that regard, I am at one with my hon. Friend.

There is one matter to which my hon. Friend referred that I ought to comment on, because I do not think that he intended to suggest that our standards of safety under the British flag had diminished. The reverse is true. If he was seeking to imply this, which I doubt, I do not accept that there has been any diminution in the standards of Government enforcement of marine safety. It is always possible to spend more money and to advance even higher standards. I do not dispute that. But the fact remains that figures recently prepared for the 10 years ending December 1975 show that the record of the United Kingdom flag in terms of tonnage lost or ships lost is second to none among traditional maritime countries and is far better than that for any flag of convenience.

I understand my hon. Friend's point, but the one I was making was that the amount of manpower used in enforcement had been reduced over this period. The argument about whether safety is measured in tons lost is one which we had constantly in earlier days.

I am aware of my hon. Friend's point. I do not think that there is likely to be or that there has been any reduction in terms of safety enforcement by reason of anything which has happened in recent days or months.

However, that is not the main purpose of what my hon. Friend was referring to when he started to speak about safety. Suffice it to say that this is, as he said, an international problem, and it is in that context only that we can tackle it successfully. We shall continue our efforts to do so.

Both my hon. Friends asked a number of questions about the "Globtik Venus", and it is perhaps right that I should start by referring the House to the Written Question that was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) last Friday and to the Answer which I gave then.

I provided some background to the dispute which arose over the "Globtik Venus", and I described the action, in the context of my own departmental responsibilities for safety, which had been taken on the instructions of the owners to repossess the ship. I made it clear then that representatives of the International Transport Workers Federation, the United Kingdom trade unions concerned and the General Council of British Shipping had all deplored the use of force by the boarding party, a declaration which was made in my presence at a meeting which I called at the end of last week.

I entirely share that view. I think that it has been quite irresponsible for the owner of the "Globtik Venus" to use the methods of an eighteenth century despot in order to deal with a twentieth century dispute. The fact that he was reported as having asserted that he would be prepared to take similar action again if necessary was in my judgment utterly deplorable.

I hope that he will now have second thoughts about those misguided and wholly irresponsible comments, and I hope that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor), in his responsibility as parliamentary adviser or consultant, will help to put him right. The hon. Member must be sensitive to the fact that no party in this House could begin to support or condone the actions which were taken in this thoroughly offensive and shameful way.

I also arranged for a copy of my statement to be sent to His Excellency the British Ambassador in Manila with the request that he pass it to the Government of the Philippines calling attention in particular to what was said about the use of force, because I expect that that Government would be interested in those comments. Some of the statements which were made to the news media last week by Mr. Tikkoo about the danger of a ship loaded with oil cargo were in their context misleading, and the general derogatory references to the seafaring trade unions were hardly calculated to make the situation easier or to bring about an amicable settlement in the case.

My concern is directed to safety considerations, and not with the merits or demerits of the industrial dispute as such. My hon. Friends will recognise the constraints imposed upon me in that regard. It was with the safety considerations in mind that on the evening of 2nd March I instructed my officials to communicate to the French authorities my Department's minimum safe manning standards for a sea-going voyage by the ship, with the request for their cooperation in ensuring that those requirements were met. On the following morning I arranged, as the General Council of British Shipping and the unions are aware, for a senior nautical surveyor and a senior engineer and ship surveyor to be sent to Le Havre to deal with all safety matters on the spot in close co-operation with the French authorities.

I have kept in close touch through my officials with the surveyors during and since the weekend. I understand that they have enjoyed the full co-operation of the French administration. They have also worked in close consultation with the officers and crew aboard. They have been proceeding with the safety equipment survey, and they have been much concerned with the proper functioning of the engine room machinery and the condition of the crew accommodation, which has now been restored to a satisfactory state.

As far as we can ascertain at the moment—and the information is by no means complete—there was damage to doors and crew accommodation, and there might have been damage to the machinery, but the position of the machinery is somewhat uncertain, and I would not wish to make any categorical statement on that this morning. A radio surveyor has also now joined the ship from Southampton, with a view to verifying that the radio equipment is in a satisfactory condition and issuing the necessary certificate.

These surveyors are under instructions to ensure that both the physical condition of the vessel and its manning are up to the required standards before the vessel sails. In this regard they will work closely with the French authorities. My hon. Friends asked how they would be able to check the qualifications of the crew, in so far as qualifications are required, if the crew is not unionised. Our surveyors are checking certificates of competency and the discharge books, and these inquiries will be carried out very fully. They relate to whether the crew is unionised.

I hope that the House will agree that the prompt intervention which I authorised was the right step, because of the paramount need to check on the safety conditions affecting seafarers and the ship.

As the Minister started by talking about sub-standard shipping and safety methods, and has now gone on to talk about the "Globtik Venus", will he say whether his Department has any record of the company, which has operated British ships for some time, operating sub-standard shipping and sub-standard safety?

I have no evidence to put before the House in that regard, nor was I asserting anything of the kind in what I said, which was relevant to a totally different point raised by my hon. Friend, who was referring at that stage to flags of convenience. The "Globtik Venus" is not under a flag of convenience at present. Whether the vessel is at present of a satisfactory standard is not a matter upon which I can comment, because it is for investigation by my surveyors.

If I heard him correctly, the hon. Gentleman raised the question whether the crewing was satisfactory or sub-standard.

It appears that I heard the hon. Gentleman incorrectly, and I apologise.

I am caught in the crossfire, which will not do my speech much good.

I want to tell the House about further developments, because it is right to set out accurately the history of these events.

On the evening of Sunday 6th March the discharge of the cargo began, and it seemed possible that the vessel would be ready to sail by the evening of Tuesday 8th March. Since then various difficulties have arisen. First, the main cargo pumps had to cease operation owing to mechanical problems and more recently owing to trouble with the diesel generators. In consequence, the latest report is that there is no power aboard, and the radio survey is held up.

Additionally, it has not yet been possible to complete the safety equipment survey. Moreover, the manning of the ship on the engineering side is not yet adequate to permit the ship to sail in a safe condition. Generally, the programme for discharging the cargo and making ready to go to sea has fallen back.

In those circumstances it is likely to be some time yet before the ship is in a fit condition to sail. I have every confidence that my Department's surveyors will keep the paramount need of safety very much in mind in their dealings with the French authorities, senior officers on board and the owners of the vessel. I come now to the very important questions raised by my hon. Friends and also raised by the statement from the TUC this afternoon. I have not seen the precise terms of that statement, but I understand that it calls for a wide investigation into this unhappy affair. Perhaps I may start by outlining the powers which exist and then go on to tell hon. Members what I have done in this regard.

The provisions for inquiries under the Merchant Shipping Acts are clearly directed to shipping casualties, such as collisions or groundings. I think that it is extremely doubtful whether these powers could be held to extend to an inquiry into the circumstances of this case in which there was no shipping casualty as such, so there is a problem there.

In any event, an inquiry under the Merchant Shipping Acts would have to be strictly limited to what occurred on board the vessel and could not extend to cover all the circumstances surrounding the case, such as the recruitment of the boarding party in this country, about which my hon. Friends are properly deeply concerned because this matter could have wide and dangerous implications. Moreover, important witnesses—namely, the Filipino crew—are now back in their home country. Therefore, it may be difficult to make them available. I am not suggesting that that matter cannot be overcome, but it is relevant to the point that I am making.

There is the possibility, I suppose, of a tribunal of inquiry. That would need to be set up by resolution of both Houses of Parliament under the Tribunal of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. As the Royal Commission on Tribunals of Inquiry reported in 1966, such tribunals should be set up as sparingly as possible and should always be confined to matters of vital public importance concerning which there is something of the nature of a crisis of confidence.

I do not deny that this was a very serious matter, but I doubt whether the setting up of a tribunal of inquiry of this kind, with the full panoply involved, even if it could be justified on other grounds, would be the right vehicle for this matter. It is early for me to judge that. Of course, it is not entirely a matter for me. I believe that is one essentially for the Lord Chancellor. I should not want to preclude any possibility. I am merely presenting some of the problems in those two areas. In any case, it would not be desirable, even if it were possible, for such a procedure to be established before the question of criminal proceedings had been investigated. It is to that matter that I now turn.

As my hon. Friend rightly indicated, I am particularly concerned about the methods used by the company to recruit the armed mercenaries. The recruitment was similar to that adopted by those who ship people abroad to take part in foreign wars as armed mercenaries. Does that not underline the seriousness of the position? Should not my hon. Friend go further and commit the Government to an inquiry on that aspect of the matter, irrespective whether the Director of Public Prosecutions decides to take criminal action?

I cannot commit the Government to do that, because I have not had the opportunity of conferring with the Lord Chancellor whether in any event this would be a satisfactory form of inquiry to set up. I was about to consider whether there was any element of criminality in recruiting people to undertake this task—I use a neutral term—or in their carrying weapons on board the ship. I thought that those matters had to be investigated by the authorities which deal with the prosecution of offences.

I thought that there was sufficient evidence to justify my drawing to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Attorney-General the facts surrounding the whole operation. Obviously, any other action will have to be considered in the light of my right hon. Friend's views and those of the Director of Public Prosecutions. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East questioned the Attorney-General this afternoon about this and that my right hon. Friend indicated that he had passed the matter on to the DPP. That authority should determine whether criminal proceedings should be taken. It will require investigation and the taking of evidence to see whether it is right to bring these matters before the criminal courts.

I hope that the House will share my view that, pending consideration of that question, it would be premature to take the question of other forms of inquiry any further. Since investigation of allegations of criminality are paramount, we should be anxious to avoid diminishing the prospects of bringing charges, if charges should be brought.

The Merchant Shipping Acts involve regulations that must be observed by those who recruit seamen. Surely that is one possible sphere for investigation. The certification of some of the men involved from the fishing industry is a matter over which the Minister has control and which could be investigated. The Minister has powers to suspend a certificate if a person admits in a public statement that he was drunk or unfit to board a tanker. Surely he should investigate that aspect of the situation.

I have already said that we wish to ensure that the people who are said to be about to sail this vessel are properly qualified so to do. The mercenaries were not recruited, so far as I can see, to sail the ship but to do an act which may or may not be illegal—namely, to seize possession of the ship.

I do not want to enter into the merits or demerits of the industrial dispute. My hon. Friends have recognised that I am not at liberty to do that. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East about the recruitment of the people who would be in charge of the ship were it to sail is irrelevant to the case. The question whether any of these people should be brought to book under various sections of the Merchant Shipping Acts for incompetence or for being guilty of misconduct so as to be unfit to discharge their duties—I think that that is what my hon. Friend was saying—is, in a sense, less important than the more urgent task of investigating what could constitute very serious criminal activity. I am sure that my hon. Friend will not dispute that if one must apply an order of priorities to these investigations, the criminal investigations must take priority. But I do not rule out any possibility at this stage. It is just that, in a very difficult case indeed, I am trying to fix a proper order of priorities for investigation.

Clearly, the circumstances of the case are very unusual. Therefore in considering questions of this kind, we are beset with difficulties. We have the situation in which an industrial dispute occurred when the ship was under the Bahamian flag with a crew of Filipinos engaged under Bahamian articles of agreement. The ship is in a French port; it is thus within the jurisdiction of the French authorities. But the vessel is now on the United Kingdom register, and our Administration, therefore, has a responsibility for safety, about which the House has been concerned tonight. This, together with the fact that the Filipino crew have been repatriated, would create considerable difficulties for any inquiry which sought to cover all the circumstances of this case.

Therefore, I repeat that I cannot at this stage dispose finally of the question whether an inquiry would be possible, but I think that what I have said is sufficient to underline the difficulties in holding a full and fruitful investigation into the whole affair.

What are the next steps? I am keeping in close touch with my colleagues in the Department of Employment concerning the possible use of conciliation services. I believe that the unions and the owners are keeping this possibility in mind. I certainly hope that some means of settling the dispute can be found, otherwise it seems likely that industrial action against Globtik ships, including two very large tankers on the United Kingdom register, will escalate and the matter will become increasingly difficult to resolve.

In the meantime, I and my officials will continue to keep in very close touch with the situation at Le Havre, and I shall make further reports to the House as necessary.

I take a serious view of the matter. I hope that my remarks bear that out. As I have indicated, I think that both of my hon. Friends were absolutely right in ventilating the matter in the House. It is a great pity that the debate has been held at this late hour and that more hon. Members could not be present.

Whatever the question of criminality or otherwise, I cannot believe that any person in his right mind can believe today that one can do anything but maximum harm to the cause of industrial relations generally by embarking on the course that this company has sought to establish. I can only hope that some good sense will be brought to bear on this matter. There is a non-executive director of the company who is a Member of Parliament and has shadow responsibilities for Wales. I must remind him that as a non-executive director he carries responsibility fully with that of the other directors who are executive directors.

I have already indicated to the hon. Member for Cathcart, who must be sensitive about these matters, that his intervention, too, to advance the cause of common sense in this matter, would be very useful.

I end where I began, by saying that I hope that this unfortunate saga will not be repeated and that something can be done as a result of what has happened over the last few days and the helpful attitude on the part of the unions and the GCBS, and of my hon. Friends in raising this matter, to resolve this situation and to ensure that it never occurs again.

1.9 a.m.

A little while ago I intervened briefly in the speech of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and asked him what evidence he had that damage to machinery and so on had been done by the invaders—if one may call them that. The hon. Gentleman called them mercenaries. I do not know how one should describe them. However, at that moment, one began to develop certain doubts about whether the hon. Gentleman was really serious.

Does the hon. Gentleman really think that an owner would employ people to damage his vessel or the machinery of that vessel so as to make it unsafe and unseaworthy? It would have been a very strange thing indeed for Mr. Tikkoo to do. The truth is, as the Minister confirmed, that there was damage to doors and so on, but there was no damage to machinery. There was no evidence that the people who tried to take over the ship were wholly bent on causing destruction on it.

I listened very carefully to the hon. Members for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson)—and I apologise to him for not being here for the whole of his speech. The hon. Member, with whom I rarely agree, has a well-deserved reputation for speaking in a very convincing and knowledgeable way. But tonight he was hesitant, and he appeared to be reading a great deal of his speech. I formed the distinct impression that he was reading from a brief prepared for him and which he only partially understood.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East also has a well-earned reputation in this House for speaking knowledgeably about shipping matters. He was less contrived and much more straight-forward than his hon. Friend. He said that he hated flags of convenience because they smacked of tax evasion and the contravention of safety regulations. But he has spent his working life honourably fighting the shipowners, and to me it seemed as if he regarded this debate as a chance to settle a few old scores, and to pursue the principle for which he has spent most of his life fighting.

What I am interested in is not the hon. Member's comments—completely unmerited—about the speeches of my hon. Friends, because they can look after themselves. I want to know whether he believes that Mr. Tikkoo's action in recruiting the mercenaries was prudent, and whether he applauds or deplores that action. Also, what is the Opposition's position on flags of convenience?

I am not going to be drawn like that. I would be ruled out of order if I attempted to answer any of those questions.

The hon. Member talks about hypocrisy before he has listened to my speech.

The hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) should not use discourteous remarks. It would be better if that were not said, because it is discourteous even though it is not always unparliamentary. If it was said, perhaps he would withdraw it.

I intended to be discourteous, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member has misrepresented me from the moment he got to his feet. I did not read my speech. I simply quoted a comment on safety from the National Union of Seamen. He deserves discourteous remarks.

Yes, it was a long time ago, but it was several years after the hon. Member would have qualified to be there. I remember a famous case in which a person was libelled by being wrongly accused of being a thief. The judge said that although it was true the man had been wrongly accused, he would not make an award to him because it was no disgrace to be lowered in the eyes of wrong-thinking people. The hon. Gen-man, in that case, is a wrong-thinking person, and his views do not worry me in the slightest.

I should like to develop my argument because I think that it will answer the hon. Gentleman. What I have been doing so far is being polite and commenting on the speeches that preceded my own. The whole debate has been elaborately contrived. Labour Members have shown great ingenuity in contriving to have a debate on this subject. It is a tribute to the good sense and tolerance of the Chair that we have had the debate, but it has had about it an air of being contrived.

We have all known what we wanted to debate. We have had to attach this debate to the peg of safety, and hon. Members on the Government Benches have woven their arguments around this thread of safety. But what must have occurred to hon. Members who have listened to the debate is that what we have really been discussing is the fact that there is a vessel in private ownership and it is manned by a non-union crew. Both those facts are distasteful to Labour Members, and the two hon. Gentlemen opposite have used exactly the arguments that they use on every occasion when they do not like to see non-union labour being used, namely, that safety is involved. They say that vessels using non-union labour are less safe, and in the name of promoting their interests and persecuting private ownership and non-union factories, vessels and sites, they make these attacks in the high-minded name of safety.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is unusual, is it not, for the Opposition speaker to intervene after I have spoken? I agreed to that on the basis that the hon Gentleman's remarks would be short and confined to certain points. He has now embarked upon a farrago of nonsense, irrelevancies and insults which do him no justice and do the House—

The hon. Gentleman is an authority on nonsense in this House, and I do not intend to be put off my remarks by anything that he says.

No, I shall not give way. I intend to make my case. The hon. Gentleman is trying in his normal aggressive way to dictate to the Chair what I should say. I listened carefully to his remarks and to those of his hon. Friends, and I now intend to make my own argument.

I was saying that I believe that this whole debate has been contrived and that in the name of promoting a debate on safety at sea of hon. Gentlemen opposite have taken the opportunity to air their grievances about private ownership, nonunion sites and non-union ships.

Let me, for a moment or two, put the opposite case to that which has been put by Government Members. I have no interest at all to declare in this matter. I am just putting another point of view. The first point I make is that the men who were manning this ship were engaged on standard contracts, which were approved by the Filipino Government, at agreed rates of pay.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. What relevance has this to the issue of safety?

The question to which the hon. Gentleman is alluding is within the terms of an industrial dispute, which I eschewed to deal with in my remarks.

The debate has gone extremely wide. I wish that I had heard more about safety than I have done, but I think that in all fairness the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South (Mr. Parkinson) must be allowed to develop his argument in his own way and relate it to safety.

I was saying that hon. Members opposite sought to attach their arguments to safety and the implication was that this vessel was manned at below the going rate by untrained people and was, therefore, less safe than if it had been a British ship.

I am answering the points which the hon. Member for Penistone and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East were trying to make by implication but which they did not have the guts to spell out. They suggested and insinuated them.

The people working on the ship had been engaged on contracts that had been approved by their own Government and at agreed rates. The contracts were voluntarily entered into and the company had no notice of any dissatisfaction on the part of the employees until it received notice from the ITF that two men were supposed to have written to the firm in December. These letters have not been revealed—

The company has not yet received the names of the people alleged to have made the complaint.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East has had the chance to put his case.

I understand that the company immediately offered to pay agreed United Kingdom rates if they were higher than the rates on which the men had been engaged. That offer was rejected. I am stating facts that are as well substantiated as any put by hon. Members opposite.

Subsequently, a demand was made by the ITF for the sum of $242,000. The company asked for a make-up of the sum, but received no evidence of how it was arrived at or how the back pay was calculated. All that has been received from Mr. Blyth is a demand that he has been unable to substantiate.

The company claims that there has been no tax advantage from its being registered in the Bahamas. If there has been an advantage, it has been to the crew members who have been totally free from all PAYE. Since they are Filipinos trading all over the world and are not British citizens, that seems perfectly reasonable.

These facts are probably disputed by the other side, but they are another point of view and all I am saying is that there are two points of view and two tales that do not marry up.

There is no way in which my understanding could be married with the stories of hon. Members opposite. There is undoubtedly a major dispute between the parties and not even the facts are agreed. The company has made clear that it is prepared to put the matter before the ACAS. I think that an inquiry is needed and the ACAS may be capable of conducting such an inquiry to bring the House nearer to the facts. It is not helpful for hon. Members opposite to work out their lifelong prejudices in this case.

The reason that there are two views is that one is informed and the other is uninformed. The hon. Gentleman has given two examples, and there is an answer for each. First, the ITF rate is well known. It is the average for all European seafarers—and the British rate is the lowest in Europe. The British flag is almost a flag of convenience in this respect. Second, as for the safety aspect, I have here the statement of Mr. Miller, the man who was paid £600 for raising the crew on behalf of Mr. Tikkoo. He said that he

"… bought two firemen's axes and went on board. They had been drinking, including me."
That presumably is why Mr. Tikkoo could not rely on this man to carry out acts on board which he regarded as responsible. They were drunk when they went on board and it was in that state that they committed the acts they did. At least the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen on Scotland and Wales understand this view because they are members of, or involved with, that company—

Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a very long intervention: he must not embark on a second speech.

I have often thought that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East has a mental block about shipping. I did not make any of the points that he thinks he has just answered. I said—I will repeat it since he finds it so difficult to understand—that as soon as the company became aware of the situation, it offered to pay the United Kingdom rates. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the company should have paid the Filipinos more than British seamen, that it was taking advantage of the Filipinos by not paying them more than the rates the hon. Gentleman has spent his life trying to achieve?

There is a major misunderstanding in this case, a total lack of agreement even about the facts. I do not feel qualified to say which story is absolutely right. However, I should like the company's offer taken up, to refer the matter to ACAS, so that an independent body can determine the facts. The company is convinced that it has a case and it is determined to stand by the facts as it knows them. We shall have to find out whether that is reasonable.

It helps no one to present a lopsided view of this situation, as the only one there is. I have deliberately made it clear that I was simply putting another point of view. Hon. Members opposite are not even prepared to concede that simple exercise—[Interruption.] I do not particularly have a view about how the owner reclaimed possession of his ship.

The hon. Member has ranged more widely than his original remarks seemed to contemplate. Would he now be a little straight with the House on the question of the mercenaries, on which he has been a little cagey? Is he not aware that the General Council for British Shipping, a reputable organisation representing British shipowners, has deplored the conduct of the Globtik company in recruiting these mercenaries?

Does he not think that it is hardly conducive to safety or good industrial relations for that sort of conduct to be perpetrated or perpetuated? He owes the House an explanation of his position, which he has so far signally failed to give. He has studiously avoided this matter and the time has come for him to state where he stands on it.

I do not think that anybody who has listened to my remarks with even a remotely open mind could have any doubt about where I stand. I am simply saying that there are two points of view, that at present there is a singular lack of common ground between them, and that there is a need for an inquiry by an independent body—possibly ACAS—to establish the facts. The company has said that it is prepared to refer the matter to ACAS and to have an independent body judge its case.

The Under-Secretary seems to think that I and the Opposition should have a view about how a shipowner should reclaim his ship. This was not the way in which I would reclaim a ship of mine, but I do not own any ships. I do not see any reason—nor do the Opposition—to hold a strong view about that matter. It is not the way in which I would have behaved, but, as I have said, I do not own ships and I have not been provoked in the way that Mr. Tikkoo has. I suspect that Mr. Tikkoo will never again try to regain possession of one of his ships in this way.

Unreasonable actions provoke unreasonable actions. This was not an incident in which anyone can take any pride. It is not a glorious chapter that will be written in the glorious history of British merchant shipping. Nor is it something that should be settled in a party political atmosphere in the House of Commons. It should be referred to an independent body and it should be settled by the parties to the dispute—those who work on vessels and those who own them.

Prejudiced and biased interventions certainly do not help. I do not think that the Minister's intervention was particularly conciliatory. Without actually saying so he made it quite clear where his interests lay. I believe that this incident should be referred to an independent body. That is the position that I support.