HC Deb 16 June 1997 vol 296 cc6-8
5. Mr. William O'Brien

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on his policy in respect of the availability of British merchant ships for defence purposes. [2044]

Dr. John Reid

The availability of militarily useful British merchant ships which might be used for defence purposes is kept under regular review as part of our normal planning.

Mr. O'Brien

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. Is he aware that the former Conservative Government's policy meant that in the massive sea operation, Purple Heart, between the United Kingdom Government and the United States Government, not one British merchant vessel was engaged or chartered? Likewise, when we shipped troops and machines to Bosnia, not one British merchant ship was engaged. The American navy moved the troops and equipment. As a result of the Conservative Government's lack of confidence, our merchant fleet is run down; manpower is reducing, training has almost stopped, and if action is not taken to improve the merchant fleet's facilities and equipment, our future could be in jeopardy. Will the Minister take note of my concerns, which have also been expressed by many others, with a view to strengthening the British merchant fleet?

Dr. Reid

I will certainly take note of my hon. Friend's concerns. I fully understand and share his profound regret at the decline of the British flagged fleet under the last Tory Government. He may be reassured that the Government are committed to working with all concerned to help to develop the industry's economic potential to the full. We are supremely conscious of the value of merchant ships and of seafarers to man them in times of crisis, and I will ensure that my officials enjoy a close and productive relationship with the Chamber of Shipping.

Mr. Soames

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State and his hon. Friends to their important jobs and I wish them every success in what I am sure will be an interesting time for them. Does the Minister agree about the extreme importance to the joint rapid deployment force of securing the second lease on a roll-on roll-off ferry? Will he confirm that, despite the defence review, and bearing in mind the importance of the joint rapid deployment force, the Government intend to go ahead with that second lease?

Dr. Reid

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome and may I be the first to welcome him to his new role as a shadow? [Interruption.] I have looked forward for some time to saying that. I completely accept the important role of the ro-ro ferry that he mentions in the joint rapid deployment force and in other possible expeditionary ventures of that nature. He will appreciate, however, that it would not be wise—before we have even started a review—to start ring-fencing every issue that is raised by every hon. Member, every regiment and every other item. Nevertheless, I appreciate the important role that the item that he has mentioned plays in our future rapid deployment force.

Mrs. Dunwoody

As a result of the cynical rundown of the British fleet by the Conservative Government, fewer and fewer people go into any kind of merchant fleet training and we cannot operate any fleet, either safely or unsafely, unless we have the personnel. Will my hon. Friend therefore examine the training programmes closely and do his best to expand the number of British youngsters being trained to go to sea?

Dr. Reid

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), who asked the main question on this, I share the regret at the dramatic decline in both shipping and training during the period of the last Conservative Government. We shall obviously have to consider that and the sectors on which we might militarily depend. I mention merely that we should not forget that the Ministry of Defence maintains one of the largest civilian fleets in Europe in the form of 17 ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to its important work around the globe and I know that its excellent training and cadetship are highly regarded throughout the shipping industry, but it is small compensation in the face of the decline in other sectors over the past 20 years.