HC Deb 25 April 1983 vol 41 cc589-91
8. Dr. John Cunningham

asked the Minister for Trade what responses he has received to his statement in March on the Government's policy towards merchant shipping.

Mr. Sproat

The General Council of British Shipping, National Union of Seamen, Merchant Navy and Airline Officers Association, Mercantile Marine Services Association and Radio and Electronic Officers Union have responded, and I have received 19 other letters, some of them duplicates.

Dr. Cunningham

Is the Minister aware that few ministerial statements in this Parliament have been so roundly and universally condemned as his statement of 18 March about the British shipping industry? Was not his statement simply a political smokescreen for the complete absence of any new Government initiatives to halt what is a disastrous decline in our shipping industry? When will the Minister face the damage that is being done to British shipping and take some specific and urgent action to help the industry? Or is it simply to be allowed to sink?

Mr. Sproat

The hon. Gentleman asks when I will take some action. He cannot have been following matters closely if he does not know that in the past few weeks alone I have taken getting on for a couple of dozen measures to reduce the burden currently on the British Merchant Navy. The answers to which I referred in my statement — falling back on subsidy and feeble protectionism — cannot be the answer to the British Merchant Navy, which must make itself more competitive vis-a-vis other merchant navies.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Is the Minister aware that while many people question the astronomic sums that are being spent on the alleged defence of the United Kingdom, for a country calling itself a maritime nation to have reduced its merchant marine by 50 per cent. within six years and to propose to cut the Coastguard is regarded as lunatic?

Mr. Sproat

The right hon. Gentleman is totally wrong if he thinks that we intend to reduce the effectiveness of the Coastguard. That is not true. The Merchant Navy's role in time of war is kept under constant review by my Department and by my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. McQuarrie

Is the Minister aware that all sensible observers of the shipping industry agree with his refreshing and robust action in support of the industry? Does he agree that subsidies and protectionism are no lasting solution to the problems of the industry? Would it not be better for the owners and unions to get together and effectively appraise the markets that are available and get into some of those territories, which is where they should be?

Mr. Sproat

I could not have expressed it better myself. The sooner the shipping industry realises that the only way to halt and reverse the decline of the Merchant Navy—which can be done—is to make our Merchant Navy more competitive and to analyse those world markets where it can succeed, the better.

Mr. Clinton Davis

Has the Minister received a letter from the Merchant Navy and Airline Officers Association repudiating the allegation that he made in the recent Adjournment debate on shipping to the effect that it and other trade unions had agreed to a reduction in safety standards—as announced by him in regulations on 18 March—and will he take this opportunity to withdraw that statement which he made to the House of Commons and which was false?

Mr. Sproat

I wrote to the National Union of Seamen and the Merchant Navy and Airline Officers Association on 2 March. The National Union of Seamen replied on 14 March, and I made my announcement on 18 March. The Merchant Navy and Airline Officers Association did not reply until 24 March. It does not agree with what I am doing, but that does not mean that I am not right. I believe that I am.

9. Mr. Woolmer

asked the Minister for Trade what assessment he has made of the level of manning and other costs on United Kingdom merchant shipping compared with those of other European merchant fleets.

Mr. Sproat

My assessment, based on a representative sample, as I have already told the House, is that the greatest variation of cost between United Kingdom and other European merchant fleets arises from the cost of crewing. Manning is of course an important determinant of crew costs, as are rates of pay, frequencies of crew change, and length of paid leave.

Mr. Woolmer

Will the Minister confirm The Times report of 30 March, which outlined a list of issues which the Minister has asked his officials to consider? If the hon. Gentleman's purpose is much more wide-ranging than manning, and if he acknowledges the failure of his laissez-faire approach to shipping policy, will he now ensure that a detailed inquiry is conducted impartially, jointly with all sides of industry, with terms of reference that enable the inquiry also to consider the problem of low wage flags of convenience and to carry out a detailed comparison of financial and non-financial Government support to merchant shipping in other countries—measures which the Government have resolutely refused to bring forward, while the merchant shipping industry is collapsing?

Mr. Sproat

I cannot be expected to keep in my head every word that The Times printed on this subject on 30 March. However, as far as I remember, it said that I was going to do a proper analysis of the British Merchant Navy compared with our best European competitors. That is what I shall do.

Mr. Prescott

That is a curious way for the Minister to announce to the House that he has concluded that there is 25 per cent. overmanning and that he will conduct an inquiry into it. Will he assure the House that he will make sure that his inspectors do not continue to reduce crews on small vessels while the inquiry is under way? Will he assure us that the Rayner inquiry that recommended the cutbacks in the numbers of coastguards will be rejected by him and that he will reject the idea of charging people for being rescued?

Mr. Sproat

That was an interestingly varied question. The Rayner review was placed in the Library of the House of Commons. I hope to come to some conclusions on the Rayner review by about the end of June. As I have told the House several times, I have taken a representative sample comparing our crew levels with those of our European competitors. I am sorry to have to tell the House that in too many cases British vessels—some 25 per cent. and more—are overmanned in comparison with our best European competitors. The Merchant Navy cannot continue that overmanning if it is to be competitive.