HC Deb 13 January 1986 vol 89 cc762-3
11. Mr. Sayeed

asked the Secretary of State for Transport whether any progress has been made in negotiations with his colleagues in the European Economic Community towards agreeing free acess to European Economic Community shipping cabotage; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Ridley

Almost all member states now accept the principle of early liberalisation but further negotiations will be needed on this and a number of other aspects of European Community shipping policy before regulations can be agreed. If negotiations are not successful within the next few months, I shall have to consider taking other steps to ensure fair and equal treatment for United Kingdom flag vessels.

Mr. Sayeed

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he consider, as one of those steps, denying access to our shipping cabotage to those countries which improperly prevent our merchant vessels from enjoying freedom of their cabotage? In addition, will my right hon. Friend consider going to the European Court of Justice?

Mr. Ridley

I agree that it is inequitable that our cabotage is open to all members states of the European Community whereas, roughly speaking, the northern European states have agreed to open their cabotage to our vessels but the southern European states have not yet done so. I shall certainly have to take account of the two ways of proceeding which my hon. Friend suggests—either closing our cabotage to those countries which will not open theirs or proceeding through the European Court of Justice. I would prefer it if we could obtain agreement by negotiation this year. That would be the best solution.

Dr. Godman

Did the discussions on cabotage involve in any way the trade in offshore supplies in the North sea gas and oil industries? At the moment, Norway, which is not a member of the EEC, enjoys a clear lead over British maritime interests. Is the EEC conducting negotiations on Britain's behalf with Norway to restore balance to this trade?

Mr Ridley

The matters that the hon. Gentleman mentions touch upon the cabotage issue, although they are slightly different, because Norway is not a member of the European Community. When my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Mr. Mitchell) the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport was responsible for those matters he succeeded in persuading the Norwegians to withdraw a charge for pilotage which discriminated against our fleet in favour of the Norwegian fleet. If there are any examples of unfair competition in the Norwegian part of the continental shelf I am prepared to pursue them further. I believe that it is better to have both markets open on fair terms rather than have both markets closed.

Mr. Higgins

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is wrong that these restrictions on competition within the EEC should exist so long after we joined? Will he fight that matter as strongly as he possibly can? He will have the support of both sides of the House in doing so.

Mr. Ridley

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. I am glad to be able to tell the House that I reached a bilateral agreement with the West German Government that they will open their cabotage to us in practice. I intend to pursue this matter relentlessly with the other members of the European Community. At a meeting of the Council of Transport Ministers last week it appeared that my colleagues agreed that cabotage should be liberalised by at least 1992, but that was an informal meeting and I should like to see the agreement in writing.

Mr. Stott

I thank the Secretary of State for what he said to his hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) about this matter. I am not at all surprised that he is having some problems with the Greeks on this issue. As I understand it, the regulations concern the nationality of the company. In other words, they do not concern British companies which flag their ships out and whose ships are manned by foreign crews. When we achieve greater freedom of cabotage, will he ensure that it is carried out by British ships carrying British seamen, and not by British ships that are flagged out under flags of convenience?

Mr. Ridley

The Greek difficulty to some extent relates to defence and the Greek's ability to resupply islands off the coast of Greece for possible defensive action. We should seek to open up the cabotage of all member states of the Community to the fleets of those who fly the flags of the member states.