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Merchant Fleet

Volume 114: debated on Monday 6 April 1987

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2.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what recent consultations he has had concerning the future of the merchant fleet.

I and my Department have had numerous discussions with shipowners and seafarers, their representatives, and other interested parties about matters affecting the future of the United Kingdom shipping industry.

Has the Minister had a chance to study the statement made in the 1987 shipping review by the general council, which predicted that the mainland United Kingdom fleet may be as low as 100 ships by 1995? Against that background, does the Minister not think that two matters need to be looked at : first, the tax regime that applies to shipping and the unfair effect that it has compared with overseas competitors; and, secondly, the unfair competition that comes particularly from countries such as Korea, Taiwan and other Asian countries in terms of the subsidies that are given to their shipbuilding industries?

The hon. Gentleman will not need to be reminded that the tax question is one for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Having said that, I take the hon. Gentleman's second point quite seriously. He will be aware that under the British presidency during the last six months of last year we were able to secure for the first time a package of measures in regard to European Community shipping, which includes our own. It is important to try to prevent unfair competitive practices of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It is an important point.

Will my right hon. Friend, who is already aware of the problems of the British dredging fleet, keep in mind the fact that we need a dredging fleet capability under United Kingdom control, not only to keep the shipping lanes open for civilian craft, but in particular for servicing naval dockyards?

My hon. Friend is right. We are aware of the needs for shipping for military and civil re-supply in times of crisis or war, and to that extent we are concerned about particular kinds of vessel, including that to which my hon. Friend referred.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Britain is possibly the only maritime nation that does not have a maritime policy? Will he have a word with his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry and in the Ministry of Defence and produce a policy that will save not only the merchant fleet but the shipbuilding industry?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. We have a maritime policy. He is aware from his experience of the shipbuilding industry and the problems of oversupply, which are a consequence of excessive shipbuilding throughout the world, that most maritime nations have suffered — many even more than we have — from the radical decline in the shipping industry. To the extent that I have departmental responsibilities for these matters, the hon. Gentleman will be aware of and, I trust, will support, the initiatives that I announced in December last year, about which we are consulting and which I hope to bring before the House as soon as possible and as soon as legislation permits.

I endorse what the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) said about possible solutions to the difficulties of the merchant fleet. Will my right hon. Friend urgently consider the report by his Department's working party on the registration of merchant ships, particularly the idea of splitting off the fishing fleet from that register so that the merchant fleet and the shipping fleet can benefit? May we have legislation before the general election?

The other day my hon. Friend was given a relatively positive response by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on this issue, which he has pursued persistently. My hon. Friend will know from that response that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and I are conscious of these needs and wish to bring measures forward as soon as practicable. I know that concern about this important issue is felt on both sides of the House.

The Government have a policy on the maritime fleet, shipbuilding and the ancillary industries in general, but most people think that it is a policy of presiding over the decline of the British merchant fleet, with no efforts being made to begin the rejuvenation of our merchant fleet and coastal shipping and to make greater use of inland waterways. Those measures would be environmentally and economically advantageous.

It will be of no use to our maritime interests if we ignore basic realities. We are living in a world in which there has been a pattern of massive world oversupply of shipping and shipbuilding. In a world recession there has been an enormous drop in oil carriage, two thirds of the decline having been in tanker tonnage. I do not need to remind hon. Members of the relevance of that. There has also been a radical change in our trading patterns with the EEC. In the face of all that, I know that the hon. Gentleman will support the measures that I announced last December and which I hope to introduce in the House in the not too distant future.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the difficulties already mentioned have been compounded by the imposition of light dues, which will have a heavy bearing on the merchant and fishing fleets? The right hon. Gentleman is incorrect in saying that we are well up with our competitors. Britain is one of the worst European nations in terms of backing the merchant service.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman, as a fair man, would like me to correct the slightly unfortunate impression that he gave about light dues. Despite the unfortunate recent increases, they have decreased in real terms by 18 per cent. since the Conservative party took office in 1979. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that nearly 90 per cent. of the vessels that are charged those dues are foreign. I am, of course, aware that dues are also relevant to the problems of our port industry.

The fact that 90 per cent. are foreign is a clear sign of the decline of the British fleet. Is the Secretary of State aware that he is showing all the hallmarks of his predecessors' complacency on this issue? If the right hon. Gentleman does not believe me, I suggest that he reads the debate on the Royal Navy and the contributions by his right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Sir E. du Cann) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan), who spelt out in graphic detail the problems that Britain is facing with the decline of our merchant fleet. Indeed, it is not just a decline; it is a massive haemorrhage. Unless the Government do something soon to stop that decline, within the next 10 years there will not be a British fleet. Why does the right hon. Gentleman not look at what the Irish Government have done with their fleet? What is he doing about the efficient ship programme? The Secretary of State sits in Cabinet beside the Chancellor of the Exchequer, so why does he not ask him to do something about benefits for our ship owners?

As the hon. Gentleman would expect, I have read fully and thoroughly the debate in question and I am not under any illusions about the difficulty facing our merchant marine, nor about the difficulties facing merchant marines throughout the world. Within that context, I know that the hon. Gentleman, who has understandable emotions about this subject, would not wish me to react Canute-like but would wish me to relate to the real problems that we face. The measures that I announced in December seek to address those problems and my statutory responsibility with regard to them.