HL Deb 10 October 1986 vol 480 cc469-71
Lord Kennet

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, given their interest in an increase in trade between the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, and given that there were over 1,600 Soviet visits to the United Kingdom ports in 1985 and virtually no British ship visits to Soviet ports, they will (a) give the reason for this imbalance and (b) rectify it.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, many of the visits by Soviet vessels to United Kingdom ports are not concerned with the bilateral trade between the United Kingdom and the USSR. These include calls by fishing vessels, cruise ships and merchant ships trading to and from third country ports, and calls for purposes such as repairs. In contrast, British vessels are rarely involved in similar activities in Soviet ports.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, while the House can readily understand that this country is on the way to lots of places for the Russians and that Russia is not on the way to many places for us, can the Minister very kindly separate out those two figures and say what proportion of the balance of trade between this country and the Soviet Union is carried in Soviet ships and what proportion is carried in British ships? This is the issue that I think we ought to get at, because, by all the figures it is possible to see publicly, it is a shatteringly low proportion that goes in British ships.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, yes. In bilateral trade, Russian lines carry some 68 per cent., United Kingdom lines 8 per cent., and third flag (mainly other European lines) carry 24 per cent.

The bilateral trade should be divided into two. One is the high-value cargoes where we do compete, and one British line successfully runs a schedule service in conjunction with two Russian lines. Regarding the low-value, high-volume traffic such as timber, British lines have not taken much interest in this service. However, officials from both governments and representatives of British shipping lines are currently considering ways of increasing British carryings in these sectors. In fact, we have arranged a meeting in Leningrad later this month, to which we are taking representatives of three or four British shipping lines.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that visits by Soviet vessels bring income and business to this country, arising from services carried out at the ports? In particular, do not the "Klondikers", as they are called—the freezer factory ships—which visit ports and in particular Ullapool, provide a service for our fishermen because they are an outlet for the sale of a very large part of the British catch?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

Yes, indeed, my Lords; my noble friend is quite correct. However, this Question is really more concerned with the bilateral trade between the two countries.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us whether the Government have any mechanism for trying to correct the imbalance described by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet? Can the noble Lord say what kind of mechanism that may be and how it may operate, other than by means of simple persuasion and the organising of meetings? Is there anything the Government can really do about it?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, yes. We have a maritime treaty between ourselves and the USSR which specifically allows British and Russian vessels to trade in each other's ports on the basis of free and fair competition. This joint martime commission is held each year to review both bilateral and multilateral shipping issues.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, will the Minister be kind enough to give some figures about the actual balance of trade between the Soviet Union and ourselves? Can he say whether that balance is against us, and, if so, why that is and what we are doing to improve it, and so on? Those kinds of figures are really important—rather more so than the numbers of ships that just sailed in and sailed out.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, that goes a little wide of the Question, which was about the number of ships sailing in and out. I am afraid I do not have the information that the noble Lord requires.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, may I take the opportunity of congratulating the noble Lord on becoming, as he is, the sixth Minister since 1979, when the Conservative Government came in, to be the senior Minister charged with co-ordinating the entire maritime policy of this country? May I ask him, in that capacity, whether he is fully aware of the Home Office's responsibility with regard to the 30,000 Soviet seamen who are wandering round this country every year without visas, compared to the virtually nil number of British seamen wandering round the Soviet Union?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his congratulations. I shall obviously bear in mind what he has just said.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, does the multiplicity of those appointments indicate that the Government are all at sea?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

Certainly not, my Lords. It merely indicates the success of my predecessor in his promotion.

Lord Morris

My Lords, is it not a source of great satisfaction that there has not been one Alliance Minister since 1979 in this department?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I think we are straying somewhat from the Question on the Order Paper.

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