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Merchant Navy: Officer Training

Volume 569: debated on Thursday 8 February 1996

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3.15 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I draw attention to the fact that the title of the Chamber of Shipping has become transmuted into the title of the Chamber of Commerce, which I regret.

The Question was as follows:

Whether Her Majesty's Government share the concerns of the Chamber of Shipping, the maritime trade unions and others concerning the need to stimulate the training of British officers for the merchant fleet and, if so, what action they propose to take.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport
(Viscount Goschen)

My Lords, the Government recognise the value of providing training opportunities for British seafarers. We provide substantial assistance through the government assistance for training and the development of certificated seafarers schemes.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, and for accepting again the commitment by the Government to increase the training of the number of cadets and retraining of senior officers. Is he aware that the introduction of GAFT in 1989 had a significant effect on the increase in the number of cadets, hut that, regrettably, through the fall of the value of that allowance over the years, the number of cadets has fallen considerably? Will he consider uprating the GAFT in line with the increase in inflation in order to administer a further stimulus to achieve the objective which all of us share?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his continuing welcome of the government assistance for training scheme. It is true that that scheme has been extremely successful. Some 2,500 seafarers have been assisted through its auspices. Since 1987 the number of cadets coming into the industry has more than doubled.

The level of the grant is a matter that we are keeping under review. We shall be announcing our proposals when releasing the details of our budgets for this scheme.

My Lords, although many British ships are now flying other flags, and arc technically no longer part of the British merchant fleet, for reasons which have been rehearsed many times in this House does my noble friend agree that it is still in our national interest that their officers should be recruited from British cadets who have had training of the highest standard?

My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble friend that British cadets who become British officers have very high skills indeed. They are valued across the shipping world. It must be remembered that not only do they serve on British-owned and British-registered ships but also on many foreign-owned ships. There is a continuing demand for the high skills that British officers have.

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that the British merchant fleet is still decreasing, as it has since this Government have been in office?

My Lords, the fact that there has been a decline in the UK flag fleet is symptomatic of what has been happening across the world. With the international nature of shipping and the low-cost economies of some offshore registers, there has been a severe decline across all the original major registers. We must ensure that this country has a strong shipping industry and that a good supply of British officers is coming through the system to make sure that that continues.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the training of British officers could he stimulated if we were able to increase the merchant fleet of this country? Does he further agree that in order to increase the merchant fleet of this country, the Government should make strenuous efforts to stop our partners in Europe subsidising shipping industry; and in addition achieve the harmonisation of capital allowances so far as concerns ships?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that the widespread use of obvious state aid is not a competitive measure for shipping as a whole. We have seen a number of countries introducing favourable and expensive regimes but that distorts the market in shipping. We believe that the right way to approach the problem is to continue to oppose widespread, totally untargeted state aids and to provide assistance for training, as well as to deregulate, so far as is possible and consistent with safety. We also believe that it is right to take a number of targeted measures to ensure the competitiveness of our fleet.

My Lords, as a former serving officer of the merchant navy, I wish to ask the Minister whether he believes it is vital for us to have an efficient, well-run merchant navy. Should all training include not only officers but also deck-hands and engineers in the ships which are important to our country? The training must cover everyone who mans a British merchant navy ship.

My Lords, I join the noble Lord in recognising the quality not only of British officers, as has been mentioned, but also of British ratings. I believe that the training balance is about right. It is important that we bring on the supply of officers, but also that the role of British ratings is not ignored.

My Lords, is the noble Viscount able to state how many government departments share responsibility for Britain's maritime affairs? Will he confirm that it is 15? If not, then what is the figure? Will the Government proceed to reinstate the system introduced by my noble friend Lord Callaghan when he was Prime Minister, whereby one Cabinet Minister was designated to look after the overall interests of the country at sea?

My Lords, I have the good fortune to be designated as the Minister for shipping within my department, the Department of Transport. So shipping would come directly under my department. Of course, other departments such as the Scottish Office also have an interest, as do the Treasury, the Department of Social Security and others. However, the Department of Transport has the overall prime interest in the industry.

My Lords, will my noble friend say how long a period of shore-based training is necessary for aspirant merchant naval officers? My interest is that in my late teens I was a merchant navy cadet at the school of navigation at Southampton and the course was for one year.

My Lords, I understand that a raw recruit could expect to spend about three to four years in classroom training and sea time. If the recruit had other relevant experience, the time would be considerably reduced.

My Lords, is there not more than a hint of complacency in everything that the Minister has said today about the merchant fleet? First, is it not clear that even since his last Statement on 29th November, the catastrophic figure of 271 ships under the British flag has further substantially declined? Is it not a fact that despite the measures to which he referred, which we welcome, at present Britain trains barely one-third of the number of cadets required to meet our existing needs, and that is especially at a time when the world is suffering from a considerable shortage of skilled seafarers? Does the Minister accept that without a continued supply of skilled and experienced maritime professionals, Britain will no longer have the resources she requires to run safe ships, to provide vital services and to provide an influence in maritime affairs in the councils of the world? Is that not a huge dereliction of responsibility?

No, my Lords; and again no to the accusation that we are complacent. Nothing could be further from the truth. If one looks at the reality, there are no magic wands to wave which could instantly cure the serious problems that face all merchant fleets around the world that are competing with fleets operating to lower standards.

We must address the matter through proper port state control, attack sub-standard shipping and ensure that it is not welcome in our ports. We inspect 30 per cent. of all foreign vessels that trade to our ports. We have only to look at the figures to realise that. On the government assistance for training scheme no candidate has ever been turned down for lack of capacity. Beyond that, the development of certificated seafarers' scheme has also helped to take seafarers on to their second certificate of competency. We realise the value of a strong merchant fleet and do not wish to pursue some of our European neighbours into an ever-increasing spiral of subsidy. We want targeted efficient measures and proper training.

My Lords, to that specific end, will the noble Viscount consider convening a meeting of the Chamber of Shipping, of the relevant unions, of the training colleges and other interested organisations to consider the serious shortfall in availability of cadets and to consider what all of them, including the Government, can do to improve the situation?

My Lords, I meet those bodies on a regular basis and we discuss the issues. I am certainly prepared to call any additional meetings that they might wish to propose in order to consider the issues on a group basis. It is important that we produce properly qualified merchant navy officers, not only for the direct seafaring trades, but also for the associated, shore-based industries, on which the country has built such a reputation.