HL Deb 22 March 1978 vol 389 cc1797-9

3 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask whether Her Majesty's Government can state what arrangements have been made with the Soviet Union with regard to a visit recently made to discuss the undercutting by the Soviet Union of merchant shipping tariffs.


My Lords, the noble Baroness is no doubt aware that discussions on maritime problems were held at ministerial level in Moscow last October. The outcome was disappointing and no further ministerial discussions are currently planned. Measures dealing with the activities of State-trading country shipping lines are being discussed in the European Community.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that rather unsatisfactory reply. May I ask him whether he can say what progress is being made in the EEC part of the world, and when can we expect a report on the subject, as this is rather necessary for a quick decision?


My Lords, I hope that the noble Baroness means that the situation is disappointing or unsatisfactory, rather than my reply. But, as to the position in the EEC, the Council of Transport Ministers has asked for an action programme involving co-ordinated defensive measures and the Commission are preparing some proposals. The noble Baroness asked about the date, and I understand that the proposals will be considered at the next meeting of the Council of Ministers on 12th June.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there is a deliberate Soviet policy of taking over large areas of the world's shipping business, by offering charges that are entirely uneconomic? Is this not worrying to the Government in view, also, of the massive expansion of the Soviet navy, besides the damage being done to the British shipping industry?


Yes, my Lords. The situation is indeed worrying. There are a number of specific problems which the Soviet authorities were not anxious to discuss with us; they wanted to talk along more general lines. It is for that reason that we feel that carrying on with the ministerial discussions is not profitable at this time, until the Soviet Union show more willingness to meet us in regard to the specific problems which the noble Lord obviously has in mind—for instance, the activities of the Soviet Besta line which, through its low rates and large numbers of sailings, is threatening to undermine the conference trade to and from East Africa. There is that kind of specific problem, of which we are only too aware, and on which we are anxious to see the Soviet Union move towards a solution.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say when he thinks it will be time for us to put down another Question, so that we do not lose any time?


My Lords, I have indicated a date when the EEC discussions will take place, and I think that the noble Baroness would have that date in mind in deciding what further action to take herself.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether the EEC discussions will include the competition which is offered by the Trans-Siberian land bridge, which not only undercuts Western shipping but is even of concern to the Russian shipowners, Morflot.


My Lords, we are very much aware of that land bridge problem. Though I would not wish to enter into any specific statement about the content of the discussions within the EEC, I can assure the noble Lord that that is a problem which is very much in mind.


My Lords, does the Minister not find it a little difficult to argue against the Russians behaving in this way when our own Government are heavily subsidising ships to foreign countries, with the obvious result of their undercutting our prices?


My Lords, that is a wider question. I am not embarrassed at not knowing the answer.


My Lords, on a more personal basis, will the noble Lord confirm the report in this morning's newspaper that he is leaving the Front Bench of the Government? If that is so, is he aware of what a disappointment that will be to those of us on this side of the House who have enjoyed many opportunities of sparring with him, particularly at the Committee stages of Bills?


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord opposite. I am surprised that the event to which he referred warrants mention in a newspaper. But I have enjoyed engaging in tussles with him and with many others, both in front of me and behind me.


My Lords, I could not let that opportunity pass. Has the noble Lord received my note saying how sorry I personally am that he is going, and expressing much appreciation of the kindness, co-operation and help that he has always given to this most troublesome questioner?


My Lords, would the noble Lord take one further opportunity of charming this House with his effective answers, by answering this question: Is it not true that, in the Russian merchant navy, both the designs of ships and the crews come from the USSR Navy? Therefore, does not this allow them to undercut by totally uncommercial prices the operations of all the Free World's ships in any part, and is not this another way of spreading maritime influence in all the oceans of the world?


My Lords, it is, of course, a fact that the whole economic system in the Soviet Union and in related countries is very different from the systems in the West. In addition to the factor to which the noble Lord referred, there are many other factors of finance and so on which make competition from them very difficult to define and, therefore, very difficult to overcome.