HL Deb 12 March 1979 vol 399 cc360-4

2.49 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 Her Majesty's Government upon what principles they relate the proposed sale of subsidised ships to Vietnam with previous sales to other countries; and what has been the total cost to the taxpayer of these subsidies in respect of sales to each country over the past five years.


My Lords, the Government are providing £4.5 million to the Government of Vietnam from our aid programme to assist it with the purchase of these vessels. There is no subsidy to the shipbuilders. Over the past five years the Ministry of Overseas Development has provided £65.5 million to enable 12 countries to buy new and second-hand British ships for developmentally sound projects, but this is again not a form of subsidy. The Department of Industry has offered from the Ship-building Intervention Fund grants totalling £37.9 million to enable British shipyards to secure export orders.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for his Answer, may I ask whether he considers that the granting of these sums of money to the Communist-dominated State of Vietnam is justified in view of the invasion of Cambodia, or Kampuchea, by Vietnam itself? May I ask him another question? Is not the whole purpose of aid to assist territories who might be financially embarrassed in order to prevent those territories from falling under Communist domination?


My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord, I would put it this way. Aid is primarily intended to help impoverished countries and the impoverished people who live in them. We pay very careful attention to other criteria; among them, very importantly, a country's practice in regard to human rights and the way it is moving in that sense. This particular programme to assist with the purchase of vessels in this country for the service of Vietnam was committed some time ago, since when the development, the movement of affairs and policies in Vietnam (as the noble Lord quite rightly reminded us) has been extremely discouraging, to say the least, to those of us who are keen to see an expansion of human rights. For that reason, the Minister of State for Overseas Development announced in another place on 13th February that, apart from any disaster and humanitarian aid, the Government proposed to provide no further bilateral aid to Vietnam in the present circumstances of human rights there. It would have been contractually difficult and counter-productive to this country if we had ceased the aid project to which the noble Lord drew attention. We decided it was best to observe the contract, but to say at the same time that there will be no further aid except in response to the High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian agencies of that kind.


My Lords, while recognising, of course, the cogency of what the noble Lord has said both as regards the original decision and as regards what has supervened, in retrospect can one not say with certainty that the cause of humanity would have been more advanced if the money had been spent on the helpless Vietnamese who are drifting about the world on other people's ships without a haven of refuge?


My Lords, I am not sure that in retrospect I would not agree with what the noble and learned Lord has said. Retrospection is at the same time tempting and daunting. However, we are in a contractual position which affects firms and workpeople in this country as well as the Vietnamese authorities. I think that on balance we have taken the right decision as regards that project. I agree entirely with him and I am glad that he has drawn attention once more in his own way to the tragedy of the massive exodus from Vietnam by helpless refugees, an exodus connived at and promoted by the authorities of the Vietnamese State.


My Lords, will my noble friend clarify this matter, for it is rather confusing to me and probably to others? Is it not the case that these ships have been built in this country and the whole purpose was to provide work for people in this country, most of whom were unemployed or likely to be unemployed? Is that not the position?


Yes, my Lords, indeed. My noble friend has put with admirable clarity that the purpose of aid is to aid impoverished countries and the impoverished elements within them, while at the same time it has this acceptable advantage that the work is carried on and the goods are produced in this country, in this case in an industry which is in very great need of every support we can give it.


My Lords, would not the noble Lord agree that to provide cheap ships to foreign countries of this sort who will run those ships with cheap crews will provide unfair competition to the European, and particularly the British, merchant marine and exacerbate the present slump which has driven so many ships off the waters and delay the time when shipowners will be able to put genuine orders to the shipbuilders? Is the noble Lord aware that in the last two years the British merchant marine has reduced itself by 7 per cent? If ships are to be built by the Government to keep people employed, would it not be better that they should be chartered to British shipowners at prices which can be afforded in this slump, so that when the upturn comes, or when there is a strategic problem of war, these ships are in British hands and British sailors can benefit by employment?


My Lords, the noble Lord raises a number of important points; I hope I can remember all of them. As to the support for British shipbuilding firms, there is, of course, the intervention fund from which grants, not loans, can be made to them. As I showed in my Answer, a great deal has been done in that respect. As to competition, I think that this is arguable. However, aid, at the time, looked a very good thing, perhaps to encourage certain tendencies away from the past in favour of a better future, however we may think about it today. As to competition, if we had not done this I hardly think it would not have been done by others and possibly in the European Community; so that the question of competition is to be studied a little more carefully as to its implications, if I take a position of non possumus.

As to the international question of conditions, I agree with the noble Lord. There is still room for major improvement in the international agreements relating to conditions and standards, which include standards of payment. We have the Merchant Shipping Act 1970 which I put through another place, as the noble Lord will remember, which went a long way to do this with certain countries; but there are others coming up now on the shipping and shipbuilding scene and, speaking personally, I think it may be time to have another look at the internationalisation of standards and conditions and payment, and therefore of costs.


My Lords, would the noble Lord tell us how we are to reconcile this aid to Vietnam with our supposed increasing contact with and friendship towards the people of the Republic of China?


My Lords, I would hope that we will turn this operation to advantage in the new situation created by the withdrawal of Chinese troops from Vietnamese territory. As the noble Lord knows, we are very active in the United Nations and in the Security Council, and we have taken something of a lead in an endeavour to get a decision, indeed a mandate, that all those concerned shall withdraw their troops and forces from all the countries concerned in Indo-China; and that applies to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia as well as to the Chinese operation in Vietnam.