HC Deb 11 March 1991 vol 187 cc658-9
9. Mr. O'Hara

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he intends to publish his response to the report of the joint working party on British shipping entitled "British Shipping Challenges and Opportunities".

Mr. McLoughlin

The working party report represents a jointly agreed analysis of the state of British shipping and its recommendations were developed as much by the Government as by the industry. The question of a separate formal response by the Government does not therefore arise.

Mr. O'Hara

Is the Minister aware that in the past 15 years the number of ships owned and registered in the United Kingdom has fallen from 1,614 to 314, that in the same period the average age of British ships has increased from 6.5 to 13.7 years, and that the number of officers and ratings employed in our merchant fleet has declined from 81,000 to 20,000? The result has been that although 95 per cent. of our export and import trade is carried by sea, only one fifth is carried by British shipping. That not only has serious consequences for our balance of trade but represents the loss of an important resource which needs to be available in times of national emergency and defence. Does the Minister agree that Britannia no longer rules the waves and that it is high time the Government did something to reverse that savage decline?

Mr. McLoughlin

As I said, the joint working party has submitted its report and its recommendations are being followed by the Government. In the past the Government have recognised the need to provide assistance for the training of ratings and officers and that was achieved under the Merchant Shipping Act 1988. There has been a large increase in the number of officers trained by the merchant fleet.

Ms. Walley

The Minister's comments are amazing. He does not seem to realise that his Government have presided over the biggest decline in shipping in any of the leading maritime nations. The Minister said that there is no need for a statement from the Government, but there must be a need for them to do something about this. The Government should do something to ensure that tax concessions are available. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if he carries on believing that there is no need for such a statement we shall see the end of the red ensign and we shall have no British merchant shipping fleet?

Mr. McLoughlin

I could not disagree more with the hon. Lady. What the British merchant fleet would most dread would be a Labour Government.