To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make it his policy to use only British merchant ships for Ministry of Defence charter; and if he will make a statement.
It is the Government's policy to charter vessels on the basis of availability, suitability and cost—and, subject to those conditions, to give preference to British ship operators.
Is the Minister aware that British-owned and registered merchant shipping has slumped from 1,143 vessels to 336, and that that is the lowest figure this century? Is the hon. Gentleman prepared, as a Defence Minister, to sustain the British merchant fleet by accepting the recommendation that it should be the only fleet to which the Ministry of Defence gives charter work?
There has been a decline in the size of the British merchant fleet, but that decline has been slowing down and profitability has picked up in the past few years. Most forecasters see some scope for expansion in merchant shipping worldwide. In the meantime, the Ministry of Defence—we are obviously responsible for that aspect—is chartering vessels from the merchant fleet. In 1988–89 out of 60 that were chartered, 45 were British—75 per cent.—and in the 15 months from 1 January last year until the end of March this year, of the 40 vessels chartered 32 were British. Of the eight that were not British, five of the ships were not available on the British register.
What are the defence implications of the present shrinkage?
If the decline were to continue and to gather speed, there would be grounds for concern. At present, we have no reason to believe that, with the different arrangements that we have made, the armed forces would not have their shipping needs met in time of war.