§ 2. Mr. Waterson
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assessment he has made of existing arrangements for the chartering of merchant tonnage in support of military operations; and if he will make a statement.
§ The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken)
My Department's arrangements for chartering merchant vessels are kept under constant review. Last August, we placed a one-year ship broking 133 services contract with the Baltic Exchange to cover most of our requirements. We shall revisit this contract in the coming months.
§ Mr. Waterson
Does my hon. Friend think that there are any lessons to be drawn from the fact that during the Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations, only five out of 110 vessels utilised by British forces were British flagged, whereas 96 per cent. of those used in equivalent operations by the French forces were French flagged?
§ Mr. Aitken
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but he should be aware that the charter contracts were offered on the open market and it was quite possible for British shipping companies to take them up. As they made clear to us, they did not do so largely because they had contractual obligations, which they were honouring at that time. There is no great significance in the percentage figures to which my hon. Friend drew attention.
§ Dr. David Clark
The Minister will be aware of the heroic role that the merchant seamen played in the Normandy landings. Will he give the House an assurance that that contribution will be properly recognised in the D-day celebrations?
§ Mr. Aitken
Yes. I am glad to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The role of our merchant seamen was heroic in that conflict and it will be suitably recognised in the D-day celebrations.
§ Mr. Shersby
Does my hon. Friend recall the importance of Atlantic Conveyor during the Falklands conflict and the serious consequences that flowed from the loss of that vessel? Will he assure the House that, in the event of any similar conflict in other parts of world, the Department will have access to suitable merchant vessels capable of carrying helicopters and other similar equipment?
§ Mr. Aitken
We certainly have taken careful heed of the lessons of the Falklands war, including the sad destruction of Atlantic Conveyor. Some 52 British ships were either requisitioned or chartered during the Falklands war. As I told the House in a debate on 9 July, despite a diminution of the number of British-flagged ships, we still believe that there are sufficient ships on the UK and dependent territories register for our defence needs.