HC Deb 30 July 1982 vol 28 cc1513-20 1.58 pm
Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)

During the last war, thousands of members of the Merchant Navy were killed and wounded in the service of their country. Throughout those six long years, the Merchant Navy provided the lifeline to this country, especially in the period 1940–41 when Britain stood alone—supplying this country with food and materials and subject to constant attacks from U-boats and enemy surface ships.

After the United States came into the war in December 1941, the Merchant Navy played a vital role in bringing troops from the United States to Europe to take part in the conflict. My father, who was a member of the Merchant Navy for 50 years, sailed on the "Queen Mary" during the war and I understand that on one famous occasion she carried 18,000 American troops from New York to Southampton.

The Merchant Navy will also be remembered for its part in the Murmansk convoys, supplying a lifeline to the Soviet Union, which was our ally during the war.

At the end of the war the Merchant Navy was given its due credit. In the victory celebrations in London, the Merchant Navy marched side by side with the three Services. That was only right because it had played a vital part in the survival of this country. Sadly, after the war, the Merchant Navy tended to return to being just another industry. Like other industries, it gradually met the full weight of foreign competition. Since 1975, the United Kingdom merchant fleet has declined from 50 million tonnes to 29 million tonnes, a loss of 40 per cent. Among the ships that have gone are many cargo liners, which, according to the General Council of British Shipping, would have been most valuable to this country in time of war. It is, however, difficult to find in any defence White Paper in those years any reference to the Merchant Navy. I cannot find any mention of the Merchant Navy in the latest "Statement on the Defence Estimates".

It was not until the Falklands operation that the Merchant Navy again hit the headlines. Everyone recognises that the operation could not have been mounted without the requisitioning of ships such as the QE2, the "Canberra", the "Uganda", the "Atlantic Conveyor" and many others. I recall two years ago taking part in a march through the streets of Southampton. I do not often take part in marches and that sort of protest. I was, however, proud to take part in that march preceded by the Union Jack and the Red Ensign and slogans that read "Keep the QE2 British". At that time, there were strong rumours that the QE2 would either be sold to a foreign shipping line or transferred to a flag of convenience.

How could troops and supplies have been carried to the Falklands without the ships I have mentioned? Had they been sold to foreign shipping lines, they could not have been requisitioned. Even if they had been placed under flags of convenience and remained under British ownership, it would have been much more difficult to requisition them, as the Government recognised in a written answer that I received several months ago.

It is a matter not only of the ships but of the men. It is an irony that there were tremendous celebrations in Southampton when the "Canberra" returned in triumph. It was not generally realised that many of the crew were volunteers for the Falklands who, on their return, were to be replaced by cheaper foreign labour. I am not blaming P & O for that. It was well known beforehand. Many of those who volunteered to go to the Falklands knew that it was a one-off job. This shows clearly that in times of conflict we need British seamen as well as British ships. We called for volunteers to go on "Canberra" to the Falklands. Since 1975, the number of British officers in the Merchant Navy has fallen from 41,000 to 28,000 and the number of United Kingdom ratings from 38,000 to 26,000. All the signs are that the decline will continue until steps are taken to halt it.

The Falkland Islands conflict has clearly shown that the defence of this country requires adequate ships flying under a British flag and staffed by British officers and crew. My contention is that the Merchant Navy should be regarded as an essential part of Britain's defence strategy. If necessary, money should be made available from the defence budget to ensure that we keep in this country a strong Merchant Navy. In a sense, the principle has been conceded by the Government already in the replacement of the "Atlantic Conveyor". Originally, it was my intention to say a lot more about the "Atlantic Conveyor", but all I say now is that I am pleased that the Government have yielded to pressure from all quarters—unions, employers and the general public—and come to an arrangement with Lord Matthews to have the replacement built in a British shipyard.

I do not expect the Under-Secretary of State to give me the full details, but I ask him two specific questions. Will the money involved come mainly from the defence budget? Is the Ministry insisting that the replacement "Atlantic Conveyor" has modifications to meet possible future defence requirements?

As I understand it, talks have been going on for some time between the General Council of British Shipping and the Ministry of Defence about possible defence involvement in the design of new merchant ships and the modification of existing ones. I quote from a brief which the council was good enough to send me. It says: The kind of defence features we have in mind are:

  1. (i) The installation on selected merchant ships of anti-missile `kit', the kind of 'kit' which could throw up `chaff' to divert missiles (if the `Atlantic Conveyor' had been so equipped, she might never have been hit) or containerised anti-missiles.
  2. (ii) More tankers to be equipped with RAS (Refuelling at Sea). The importance of this was shown in the Falklands conflict when RAS equipped tankers were needed immediately and proved essential to the Task Force.
  3. (iii) Containerships can be developed for a helicopter and possibly a Sea Harrier role—the Arapaho project. This has been talked about for years but nothing has been decided. The necessary merchant ship tests have not been carried out.
  4. (iv) The possibility of inclusion in some new ships, e.g oceangoing ro-ros, of strengthened decks (for Harriers and helicopters) and the installation of lifts so that aircraft can be parked below the main deck."
Those are just some examples of how there could be cooperation between the Ministry of Defence and the shipping industry to ensure that in any future conflict similar to the Falklands which might happen elsewhere we had an equipped Merchant Navy ready to play its full part.

I hope that in the review of the Falklands operation the Ministry of Defence will take full account of the role played by the Merchant Navy. I quote from Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet, who said: I cannot say too often or too clearly how important has been the Merchant Navy's contributions to our efforts. Without the ships taken up from trade, the operation could not have been undertaken, and I hope this message is clearly understood by the British nation. I hope that this message is clearly understood by the Government.

The conclusion must be that in addition to the three Services—the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force—there is a fourth arm of defence, the Merchant Navy. Appropriate steps should be taken to ensure that the British Merchant Navy—I stress the word "British"—does not decline further. In that, I hope that the Ministry of Defence will play its part.

2.08 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Jerry Wiggin)

The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) has rightly drawn attention to the relationship between all the Armed Forces, but particularly the Royal Navy, and the Merchant Navy. This relationship, which is one of interdependence, is of great national importance and of long standing. Therefore, I welcome the opportunity to say how my Department sees the role of the Merchant Navy, which was aptly described a moment ago by the hon. Gentleman as the fourth arm of defence.

The hon. Gentleman will realise that part of what he said—for example, his remarks about the size of the British merchant fleet—is a matter for the Department of Trade rather than for my Department. But I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Trade.

Much of what the hon. Gentleman said touched on my own interests, and it is on these and on the part that the Merchant Navy plays in defence thinking that I propose to focus my remarks.

This debate takes place against the backcloth of the Falklands operation in which the Merchant Navy played such an important and impressive part. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, opening last week's debate on the Royal Navy, said that he wished to pay a well deserved tribute to the contribution of the Merchant Navy, and I make no apology for reverting to that theme both because I believe that the House will wish to know a little more about the scale and nature of the contribution and because a great deal has been learnt from the events of the past few months. These lessons still have to be fully analysed, in this matter as in others. Inevitably that means that they will be taken into account by the Naval planning staffs in due course.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier in the week, the part played by the Merchant Navy will feature in his White Paper on the lessons of the Falklands operation which, as the House knows, is to be published later in the year.

The taking up of ships from trade is no latter-day phenomenon. Half of Nelson's fleet at the battle of the Nile were merchant ships. More recently, a large number of merchant ships were engaged in support of our defence effort during the Second World War.

There was reference in the Navy debate to the part played by the "Queens" as troop ships during the Second World War, and I was interested to hear of the contribution made by the hon. Gentleman's father in that operation.

Indeed, I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Boscawen) saying with what warmth he learnt, as a member of the invasion force, of the landing of a large number of American troops from the "Queen Elizabeth" in Cherbourg, and how confident he then felt that the invasion would proceed with success from that point. There are many examples, and that is just one of them.

Our plans for a time of national emergency envisage a number of ships being taken up to assist the Armed Forces—tankers, roll-on roll-off vessels to ferry men and equipment to the Continent, trawlers to operate as mine counter measures vessels, and so on. Therefore, the framework for chartering and requisitioning ships already existed. The operational and logistical staffs did not have to start from scratch, but the characteristics of the ships taken up from the trade, or STUFT, as they quickly became known—my Department insists on the use of initials in all cases—were in many cases different from those likely to be needed in an operation within the NATO area, not least because of the vast distance that had to be covered and the very real logistical problems that had to be solved.

So far, 58 ships have been taken up. The House will realise that the process has not yet stopped. Many ships have now returned to the United Kingdom and have been returned to their owners, but others are still needed to support our ships contributing to the naval force that will need to be maintained in the South Atlantic for the foreseeable future. The ships taken up cover a wide spectrum which amply illustrates the logistical support necessary to sustain an enterprise of this kind at the other end of the globe.

Passenger liners such as the QE2 and "Canberra", or ferries such as the "Norland", were used to carry the troops who fought so bravely to recover the Falklands. The passenger liner "Uganda" was taken up at Naples, in the middle of an educational cruise, to be repainted and hastily converted into a hospital ship. Five trawlers were taken up to be used to sweep the waters off the Falklands which had been feared to have been mined. Ships such as the "Atlantic Conveyor"—so tragically sunk in the attacks on the task force—and her sister ship the "Atlantic Causeway" were used to ferry helicopters and Harrier aircraft.

A number of ships were used to carry ammunition, heavy equipment and general stores. Those and a large number of tankers were acquired to supplement the vessels of the Royal Navy's own support fleet, the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Other ships were taken up as floating workshops, as despatch vessels, and to lay moorings. Last, but by no means least, there were the tugs "Salvageman", "Yorkshireman" and "Irishman", which similarly had an important part to play. It was by any standards a formidable armada. If ranged end to end—a typically useless statistic—the vessels would have stretched from Nelson's Column to the Royal Naval College at Greenwich.

During the Falklands operations, requisitioned and chartered ships carried over 8,000 personnel, 30,000 tons of freight, over 300 vehicles, 18 Harrier aircraft and about 80 helicopters to the Falkland Islands. Overall, about 12 million meals and 1 million operational ration packs were carried south, and on 14 June 420,000 tons of fuel were in the supply chain between the United Kingdom and the South Atlantic. Latest figures indicate that more than 670,000 tons of fuel have been transported to support the operation.

It is no exaggeration to say that the actual taking up of ships and the preparation for service in the South Atlantic went like the proverbial clockwork. That was principally due to the longstanding co-ordination of defence planning for merchant shipping between my Department and the Department of Trade. That brings me to the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. This enabled both Departments to tackle the operation with mutually-understood roles and led to the Department of Trade's rapid identification and acquisition of suitable ships followed by their handover to the Ministry of Defence for conversion to their designated role.

Nineteen ships were fitted with flight decks or helicopter operating platforms. Many were equipped with gear to enable them to refuel at sea and others were adapted for self-defence, including the installation of special communications systems.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

The Minister said that the size of the merchant fleet was primarily a matter for the Secretary of State for Trade. Surely that is only partly so, because he has listed many of the ships that were requisitioned. However, had those vessels been sold or transferred to flags of convenience, they could not have been requisitioned. As a result, the Ministry of Defence has a vital role in assessing the size of the British merchant fleet.

Mr. Wiggin

The hon. Gentleman's point has substantial implications for my Department, because in the event of any conflict we rely enormously on civilian resources. We are debating the Merchant Navy, but the hon. Gentleman can imagine what we would do with civilian plant and personnel in the event of war. The role of my Department is constantly to be aware of what is available.

We keep an eye, but only an eye, on such matters as the size of the trawler fleet, bearing in mind that there is a wartime role for such ships. Given the way in which Whitehall is organised, it is right and proper that the Department of Trade should look after all merchant shipping. Our interest, involvement and responsibility is simply to be aware of what is available. I understand why the hon. Gentleman made that point, and I have considerable sympathy with it, especially in view of some of the activities of requisitioning the ships that took place in the Falklands operation.

The average fitting-out time was a mere three days. That is a remarkable testimony to the enthusiasm and professionalism—not to mention the sheer ingenuity—of the naval and commercial yards involved. The labour force willingly worked long hours, day and night, to get the work done as quickly as possible.

The part played by ships taken up from trade in the actual operation needs no further elaboration, but I should like to draw attention to one important aspect that was an essential element in preparing ships for service in the South Atlantic. I refer to the briefing and training that masters and crew underwent at the outset. Many masters were already members of the Royal Naval Reserve or had attended the courses regularly run by the Royal Navy on Merchant Navy defence, with especial reference to passive defence measures for the protection of a ship and her crew.

Senior naval officers, officers of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and Royal Naval supply and transport service personnel were embarked on the larger ships. Tremendous enthusiasm to learn was shown by those masters and crews who were new to this role. The fact that ships sailed from the United Kingdom, rendezvoused with a ship of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and carried out refuelling at sea for the first time, sailing on southwards, learning to operate fully darkened and without navigation lights once clear of the main shipping routes, occasionally putting on a zigzag and operating with minimum use of radar—and all of this within 10 days—reflects immense credit on the professionalism of the Merchant Navy and the tremendous team effort by the Merchant Navy, the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

The House can indeed be proud of the Merchant Navy. Nor can we afford to ignore the extent to which we, as island people, are dependent on sea-borne trade for our livelihood. It is all too easy to forget that the food and raw materials on which we must depend—and will continue to do so—are brought in by sea as they have been over the centuries. Ninety-six per cent. of our imports and exports are conveyed by ships, half of these in British ships. Our Merchant Navy is the fifth largest in the world, and the second largest in NATO.

The hon. Gentleman expressed his worry about the decline in merchant tonnage. In one way or another, the Merchant Navy was able to meet the varied and difficult requirements that arose during the Falkland Islands operation. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the "Atlantic Conveyor". The details of the replacement are being dealt with now and I cannot add very much to what he will have read in the newspapers. My Department has agreed to contribute £4 million to the deal. He will be able to satisfy himself in due course that the defence interest will justify such an expenditure. The availability of a ship of this nature, guaranteed not only for emergencies but for exercises on a regular basis, will be a valuable defence asset to our reserves. One of the many lessons that will have been learned from this exercise was the way in which we were able to use the "Atlantic Conveyor". I have spoken recently with United States naval personnel who were extremely interested in that part of what happened. NATO has plans for such exercises—perhaps they will be accelerated—on a wider basis.

I shall not delve into the role of the unions in the recent crisis. The merchant crews involved all volunteered. It would be not unfair to say that the unions insisted that all the crews should be British, and on extra wages to which the Government agreed immediately. The numbers involved were somewhat larger than some of the foreign crews who were represented before. There is no secrecy or politics in the fact that many British shipowners are finding it more profitable and economic to hire foreign crews. The hon. Gentleman, in representing Southampton, Itchen, knows the economics of the matter, which are not always to the benefit of the British seamen. That is a matter of opinion and I do not wish to get into a political argument with him about it.

One of the Royal Navy's responsibilities is to safeguard British flag carriers in peace time. Although the hon. Gentleman did not mention it in his speech, that feature of the Navy's responsibilities is related to the subject that he raised. When we saw a threat to our merchant shipping in the Straits of Hormuz, after the war broke out between Iran and Iraq, we immediately established a Royal Naval patrol in the area. Currently, two warships—one of which, incidentally, thanks to the generosity of the New Zealand Government, is Her Majesty's New Zealand Ship "Canterbury"—are at notice to come to the assistance, if needed, of merchant shipping crossing those troubled waters.

By the same token, we plan to resume the practice of out-of-area deployments by a task group. This will enable the Royal Navy to visit ports in friendly countries and, where possible, to exercise with other navies, thereby consolidating our ties with nations outside the NATO area. But these deployments can also be seen as an indication of the Royal Navy's preparedness to safeguard the interests of British merchant ships operating in other parts of the world.

A great deal of work has been carried out on planning for the protection of merchant shipping in wartime. These plans, although largely prepared in conjunction with our NATO allies, extend worldwide and are regularly exercised.

The Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic is charged specifically with maintaining control of vital sea areas of the Allied Command Atlantic and with protecting the seaborne traffic of the Alliance through these areas. A major objective is the safe and timely arrival of reinforcement and resupply shipping from North America as well as of economic shipping bringing vital supplies of food and raw materials. It is the Soviet submarine that will be the most significant threat to this shipping, although the air and surface threat cannot be discounted.

It is for this reason that our own maritime forces are configured very largely for anti-submarine operations. It is the role of the naval control of shipping organisation to co-ordinate shipping movements so that the necessary protection can be afforded. Last year's major maritime exercises Ocean Safari and Ocean Venture were designed essentially to test the ability to keep open the transatlantic sea link, and a number of useful lessons were learnt as a result. The means by which protection would be afforded to merchant shipping in time of crisis were explained in detail to members of the General Council of British Shipping at a meeting with my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces earlier in the year, and I believe that this was a most valuable occasion.

It gave me a great deal of pleasure to host a dinner given by the Admiralty Board only the night before last to the general council and to representatives of firms involved with the exercise that has so recently been successfully concluded. I was able to say to the shipowners themselves a big "Thank you" on behalf of the country and the Government for the contribution which the Merchant Navy undertook and is still carrying out in supporting the task force.

I have already referred to the close relationship between my Department and the Department of Trade,. I should mention briefly the number of committees that sit to coordinate this relationship. The principal forum is the shipping defence advisory committee. The joint merchant shipping defence committee, which is chaired by the Department of Trade but on which my Department is represented, contains representatives of the industry. It is designed to improve liaison between Government and industry on planning for the direction and role of merchant shipping in time of tension or war. The Royal Navy-Merchant Navy committee, which reports to the shipping defence advisory committee, meets on a regular basis. There are other committees in the wider NATO context—for example, the planning board for ocean shipping.

I have gone into some detail in order to illustrate the regular discussions that take place between the Government in general, and my Department in particular, and the shipping industry on matters of mutual concern. A formal presentation was given to members of the General Council of British Shipping at the fleet headquarters at Northwood last week on the part played by merchant shipping in the recent operations, and I understand that this was well received and provided useful food for thought.

There are many lessons to be learnt from our experience in the South Atlantic. We shall need to share these lessons once they have been fully digested with the industry. It is important to bear in mind that the circumstances of the Falklands operations—the long distances, the absence of nearby port facilities and the appalling climatic conditions—were very different from those which could be expected to apply in the event of a European war.

The Falklands operation has highlighted the interdependence between the Royal and Merchant Navies. This debate has provided a useful occasion briefly to demonstrate the part that the Merchant Navy plays in defence thinking and to bring out the close and continuing liaison that exists between the Ministry of Defence and the shipping industry.

I wish, in conclusion, again to express my Department's appreciation of the co-operation of the industry during the Falklands crisis and of the skill, determination and great courage shown by the masters and crews of the vessels who sailed in support of the task force. It was a magnificent achievement. We are truly grateful.