HC Deb 21 May 2002 vol 386 cc149-50
6. Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich)

How many British merchant ships have registered under the red ensign since the Government introduced the tonnage tax. [55532]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson)

Since the tonnage tax was introduced by the Finance Act 2000 in July of that year, a total of 173 merchant ships have joined the UK shipping register.

Mr. Henderson

My hon. Friend paints a much better picture than that pertaining during the years in which Conservatives waved Union Jacks at their party conference with one hand while lowering the red duster on hundreds of Merchant Navy ships with the other. Is he monitoring the companies that are benefiting from the tonnage tax to ensure that they deliver on training and jobs for the Merchant Navy fleet? If not, perhaps he could begin by monitoring P&O, Lord Sterling's company, to ensure that he not only reaps the benefits but delivers the goods.

Mr. Jamieson

My hon. Friend always takes an assiduous interest in maritime matters on his constituents' behalf. The tonnage tax places an obligation on companies that enter into it to train one new cadet for every 15 existing officers. So far, 58 companies account for 510 training places. I can assure my hon. Friend that we will monitor the situation carefully to ensure that the companies comply. He is right: in five years in government, we have re-established the United Kingdom flag, and the Union Jack flies on more vessels now than it did five years ago. The UK is now a force to be reckoned with in the maritime world, after years of neglect under a Conservative Government.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

Does the Minister agree that the significant improvement in the amount of tonnage sailing under the red ensign is not enough in itself? Does he share the view of NUMAST, the ships' officers union, that more job security is needed for British officers, and that greater emphasis must be placed on training UK cadets? Given that crews on some UK ferries are operating under contracts that prohibit them from joining unions such as NUMAST, will he ensure that proper social and employment conditions are enforced on ships that come under the red ensign as a result of the tonnage tax?

Mr. Jamieson

The hon. Gentleman half-heartedly notes our success in getting ships on to the UK register. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has done an excellent job in providing a service to the shipping companies and others, thereby ensuring high environmental safety standards for those ships, and the highest safety levels for those who man them. Our commitment extends beyond training, and we will monitor the situation carefully. We have also ploughed a considerable amount of money into the smart training scheme to ensure that there is a proper training base in this country. The Government have done more in five years to enhance training than probably any other Government in the past 50 years. I am glad to see the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) nodding in assent.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

Does my hon. Friend remember the warm welcome that Jeffrey Sterling gave to the introduction of our tonnage tax when he told us at a Labour party conference that this Government had done more for the merchant fleet in our first 18 months than the Tories had done in the past 18 years? However, can my hon. Friend assure me that the production targets, the targets to increase cadets by 25 per cent. year on year, and the targets mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Henderson), will be met? What sanctions can the Government take against those companies that fail to deliver?

Mr. Jamieson

The answer is simple: if companies do not comply with the conditions of the tonnage tax, they will be taken out of that tax regime. I echo my hon. Friend's comments and commend him on the work that he has done on maritime matters. He has always spoken vigorously in favour of the maritime industry and its interests. The work that we are doing and what we have achieved in the past five years have considerably enhanced the UK flag and our standing in the maritime world. I assure my hon. Friend that the issues he raises are at the forefront of our minds.

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