HC Deb 29 November 1988 vol 142 cc560-2
2. Mr. McFall

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is his latest estimate of the number of merchant ships available to him in an emergency.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)

The number of vessels available on the United Kingdom and dependent territory registers at 30 September 1988 in the categories required for defence purposes was as follows:

Large stern trawlers 15
Other fishing vessels & offshore support vessels 333
Product tankers 126
Break bulk general cargo vessels 163
Large passenger liners 5
Roll on-roll off ferries 73
Tugs 91
Mr. McFall

Is the Minister aware that there is great concern about merchant shipping? Is he further aware that both the Defence and the Transport Select Committee have commented on the matter and that the Government have agreed with their analysis of vessel shortfall, the availability of categories of ships and the genuine availability of ships, whether through ownership, through routes or through crew availability?

Two questions arise—

Mr. Speaker

Order. One question.

Mr. McFall

Yes, one question in two parts. Which categories of ships still cause the Government concern in regard to requisitioning and genuine availability, and during which period of time will those ships be available?

Mr. Hamilton

The statistics that I have quoted are for readily available ships. It is assumed that they are either in British ports or nearby and can be requisitioned in a short time. We are concerned about large stern trawlers and have felt compelled to consider other types of vessels as auxiliary mine sweepers. The overall evidence is that the position has stabilised, and we do not expect it to become any worse.

Sir David Price

Does my hon. Friend agree that the question would be better phrased to embrace the whole of NATO availability of merchant ships? Is he aware that many of us are concerned that the problem mentioned by the hon. Friend for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) about the United Kingdom Merchant Navy applies to the whole of the NATO contribution to the merchant shipping section of the Alliance?

Mr. Hamilton

My hon. Friend is right. We are concerned about what should be happening in NATO. Through a United Kingdom initiative, NATO has embarked on a study of both supply and demand, which we hope will enable us to assess the requirement accurately.

Mr. Loyden

Does the Minister recognise the valuable work done by the Merchant Navy in two world wars? Have the Government not responded disgracefully to seamen in the 1980s by running down the British fleet and allowing flagging out so that the ships are foreign run? What sort of justice is that for British seamen? When will the Government recognise that the merchant fleet is an important aspect of life in this country, both in peace and in war?

Mr. Hamilton

The Government fully recognise the great contribution of merchant seamen both during the war and after. However, we are dealing with shipping in the market place. If British ships with British crews cannot compete, they will have to look elsewhere.

Mr. Aitken

Is my hon. Friend not in some danger of being a little complacent in his answers, and not only in regard to the NATO sealift shortage of 150 ships? Does he recall that in 1939, prior to the last war, there were some 3,000 deep sea vessels, 2,600 of which were sunk during the hostilities? There are currently 600 deep sea vessels which, in terms of today's conventional weapons, would be unlikely to last more than a few weeks. Is there not a real need to think more widely and deeply about shortages that could arise in an emergency?

Mr. Hamilton

The Government are by no means complacent. We are at present negotiating agreements with major flag-of-convenience states to minimise any legal difficulties that might be experienced with the 200 vessels on their registers. We have developed machinery that can be activated at short notice to charter ships on the market. We have negotiated comprehensive arrangements for access to ships owned by our NATO allies.

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