HL Deb 03 July 1985 vol 465 cc1177-81

2.38 p.m.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will support the appointment of a Select Committee of this House to analyse the causes of the decline of the British Merchant Navy and its consequences and to make recommendations for its revival.

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, this is a matter for the usual channels. If it is the wish of your Lordships that consideration should be given to the appointment of a Select Committee on this matter, then I shall of course be willing to open discussions through the usual channels.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for that statement. How is the House to express its wishes? The noble Viscount may be aware that when I last asked a similar question about the decline of the Merchant Navy there was all-party support for the proposition that there should be an investigation of some kind. The majority appeared to favour having a Select Committee of this House. Can the noble Viscount tell the House how we should express our wishes if, as seemed to be the case on the last occasion that I asked this question, there is general support for the appointment of a Select Committee?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I do not think it would be for me to tell the House how to express its views; the House is very well able to do so, and does so on many occasions. I have to point out that naturally I would consider this suggestion and put it to the usual channels. If noble Lords so wish it, I shall soon know.

We do not have the resources to set up more than one Select Committee of this kind. The noble Lord knows—because he is on it—that the Select Committee on Overseas Trade under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Aldington is hoping to complete its work by the Summer Recess. From the resources point of view it would be possible to set up another committee of that kind in the autumn, provided that the existing Select Committee first completed its work, and if it was the wish of your Lordships.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, will my noble friend consider whether the usual channels could not examine the possibility of a debate on this matter? There are those who hold the view that our preoccupation with the continent of Europe has tended to divert our thinking from maritime police, the importance of which is vital to a united Europe and even to continental Russia, which is now embarking on a maritime policy. Is this not a matter to which we ought to give very serious consideration?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I appreciate the point made by my noble friend. I have been asked about setting up a Select Committee, but naturally a debate comes within the terms of the same Question. In view of the pressure of other business, there is now very little time left for debates before the House adjourns for the Summer Recess. I was asked yesterday whether it would be possible to have a debate on, for example, the problems of Europe following the Milan conference. There are competitors for the time of the House, but no doubt they will all be very carefully considered.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we much appreciate the noble Viscount's positive reaction to my noble friend's Question. Does the noble Viscount not recall that in last week's debate on defence the question of the Merchant Navy was discussed at some length by a number of noble Lords? Does he not recall also that on that occasion we were informed that a Government inquiry is now being held into the Merchant Navy? Will he be good enough to tell the House when the report of that inquiry is likely to be ready; whether it will be published, so that we may all be aware of its contents; what is the nature of the report; and who is conducting the inquiry?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I should not wish to continue straying far from the original Question, but it is important that I should reply to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition on this point. It is in fact a study which is being made for my right honourable friend the Minister of Transport. I cannot say exactly when it will be completed. When it has been completed, it will of course be considered by both the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Defence. I cannot at this stage answer questions as to its publication.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, whether or not it turns out to be possible to appoint a Select Committee of this House on this subject, will the Government give favourable consideration to some kind of very broad inquiry, not only into the merchant marine but also into all the sectors of our sea-based or sea-related industries, whether they are concerned with extraction, the provision of services, or transport and commerce? Also, will the Government make sure that the inquiry takes into consideration the need for improved arrangements within the Government—I hesitate to say, for co-ordinating maritime policy, but for having a maritime policy at all?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, it would be very bad if when answering Questions I did not set a good example by keeping to the rules, or rather the recommendations, of the Procedure Committee. If I were to stray down the road along which I am tempted by the noble Lord, I should not be doing so, and I am sure he will understand that.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, will the noble Viscount bear in mind that this is one very rare occasion when I find myself in total agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, that this is not only a matter of trade, but also of national security? The decline of the Merchant Navy has considerable implications for our maritime strength as a whole, as I think was made abundantly clear at the time of the war in the South Atlantic. Will the noble Viscount give serious consideration, provided resources are available, to setting up a Select Committee on this most important matter?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I can see from the tone of the questions that there will probably be a desire in the House that I should discuss this matter through the usual channels to see what can be done. In those circumstances it would not be right for me to stray further into the merits of the case.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, will the noble Viscount answer one very small question? He mentioned that a study is in progress and that the Minister of Transport would be involved. Can he give some indication, in view of its importance, whether the Department of Trade and Industry will have an input into this inquiry?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, as I said, the study has been set up and is being considered, in the first instance, by the Department of Transport and the Ministry of Defence but, naturally, in a matter of this importance there will be input and discussion throughout the whole Government.

Viscount Rochdale

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is in existence a draft document from the Commission in Brussels on this very matter of maritime policy and the strengths of the various merchant navies? Is he further aware that it seems likely that the Select Committee of your Lordships' House on European affairs is likely to inquire in some detail into this matter in the autumn?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend. I was not aware of any of the matters he put to me, and that makes his question all the more important. We shall, of course, consider what he said.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, may I press upon the Leader of the House the need for urgency in this matter, bearing in mind that before a Select Committee is set up or a debate held in the House, there are figures already available which show that since 1979, when we had nearly 1,200 vessels in commission, totalling 36.5 million tonnes, we have managed to halve that to 689 vessels, totalling only 18 million tonnes? Are we not now in a situation where we should consider the matter with extreme urgency and do something about it?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, may I say to the noble Lord that I am quite clear now, the more so from what he has said, that I should discuss this whole matter through the usual channels, and I shall do so. We shall eventually report our position to the House. In doing so, we shall naturally at the same time take into account the important point made by my noble friend Lord Rochdale. We can then consider what is the best way for this House to proceed in dealing with this important matter.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he agrees that it would be quite wrong if no one on this side of the House seized the rare opportunity that arises from time to time of agreeing with the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby? It is very rare indeed. I should like to ask my noble friend whether he agrees that the decline in the Merchant Navy has extended over many more years than was indicated by the noble Lord who last asked a question from the other side of the House? This is a really serious matter which has been neglected for far too long by successive Governments. Neither the shipowners nor the unions involved can escape heavy responsibility.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I again note that the House as a whole wishes this matter to be considered by the usual channels. Much as I am tempted, as so often I am, by my noble friend to continue and perhaps to agree with what he said, I have already said that I shall not comment on the merits of the case, and so I shall not.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, will the noble Viscount the Leader of the House consider that this matter involves a sense of urgency? I ask that in the light of the fact that the industry is now being viewed, in popular jargon, as a "sunset" industry, which it certainly is not, since man has not devised a better means of carrying large amounts of goods other than by sea. Our lack of activity and the run-down is due to our deficiency in competitiveness. Is it not a matter of urgency to consider whether a more long-term view ought to be taken of the whole issue by means of a committee in terms of redeveloping, reinvesting and creating more innovation in this industry rather than indulging in the short-term view of flagging out or, worse still, selling out. which will leave us with a maritime industry confined to a few telex rooms in the City of London?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, these are matters which will certainly be considered when we come to decide whether or not a Select Committee should be set up. However, if the House decides to set up a Select Committee, and decides to use resources to that end, the Select Committee is bound to take a longer-term view as, indeed, our Select Committees always have and as, I believe, this House expects them to do.

Lord Derwent

My Lords, has not my noble friend the Leader of the House answered the Question sufficiently often in the same terms? Is it not time to move on to the next Question?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, it is very difficult to interpret the views of the House when they are applied to oneself. I am doing my best and perhaps I am right in thinking that the House has heard enough of me on this subject.