HC Deb 15 April 1986 vol 95 cc711-2
1. Mr. Nicholas Baker

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he has received representations about the defence implications of the growth in size of the Soviet merchant shipping fleet.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Stanley)

My right hon. Friend has received no recent representations specifically on this matter, but a number of hon. Members have referred in the House to the defence significance of the Soviet merchant marine, and I did so myself in opening the debate on the Royal Navy on 6 February.

Mr. Baker

Concerned as we are with the maintenance of peace on the seas in the western Mediterranean and elsewhere, does not the dramatic increase in the size of Soviet merchant shipping—by 20 per cent. during the last nine years, at a time when the United Kingdom merchant fleet has declined by 56 per cent.—demand that we should review and maintain a large merchant fleet of our own? Will my right hon. Friend consider raising the subject of the size of the Soviet merchant shipping fleet and its use for defence purposes in arms reduction negotiations?

Mr. Stanley

As my hon. Friend knows, I addressed the issue of the defence significance of the Soviet merchant marine. I have some doubts as to whether it is an appropriate subject for arms control negotiations, given the difficulty of establishing whether particular vessels are essentially for defence or civil purposes. I take the basic thrust of what my hon. Friend has said. As he knows, our Department takes a very close interest in, and is concerned about, merchant shipping requirements for our own defence purposes. I draw his attention to last year's "Statement on the Defence Estimates," in which we said that, in respect of the particular categories that we require for defence purposes, the numbers are at present such that we can discharge our NATO obligations, with the exception of stem trawlers for minesweeping. However, we are well on the way towards devising a satisfactory alternative to meet that requirement.

Mr. Skinner

During the Falklands war this Tory Government called on the Merchant Navy to redouble its efforts in that campaign, and most of those involved did so. As soon as the war was over, the Government decided to reduce the merchant shipping fleet right around the coast of Britain. Instead of talking about the Soviet shipping fleet, would it not be sensible to build up the British merchant shipping fleet and create more jobs?

Mr. Stanley

I certainly agree with the early part of what the hon. Gentleman said. The Merchant Marine responded magnificently to the demands placed on it at the time of the Falklands conflict, and I am sure it would do so again. General policy on the Merchant Marine is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the rest of the House that we are watching extremely closely the pattern of the availability of merchant shipping for our own defence purposes.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

Given the defence implications of the rundown of our merchant fleet, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is extremely important that the Ministry of Defence should look closely at ways in which our defence budget can be used specifically to bolster the falling numbers of our Merchant Marine to help it counter the threat from the growth in the Soviet merchant fleet?

Mr. Stanley

My hon. Friend will be aware that in times of emergency we have power to take up individual ships that are under the British flag. He will also know that we spend considerable sums under the defence budget and that major orders are in prospect. We are making our own direct contribution through defence funds by building up the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service, which is for direct defence purposes.

Mr. O'Neill

The Minister should know that no one appreciates the complacency of the Government on this matter. What are the defence implications of flagging out of the BP fleet, because that is one of the biggest drains on the potential contribution of the Merchant Marine? If it were to carry on at this rate, we would be gravely at risk.

Mr. Stanley

I totally reject what the hon. Gentleman has said. There is no complacency whatever by Defence Ministers. BP tankers have been flagged out to the Bermudan flag. If a British-owned ship is flagged out on to the register of a dependent territory, it is still subject to United Kingdom Government requisitioning and is available for defence purposes.

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