HL Deb 02 December 1991 vol 533 cc1-4

Lord Murray of Epping Forest asked Her Majesty's Government:

What recent consultations they have had with representatives of the shipping industry concerning the plight of that industry and the call for government action to strengthen it.

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, we have regular contact with shipping industry representatives on a wide range of subjects of mutual interest.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. In the course of the contacts he has referred to, will he bear in mind the statement made by his honourable friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury on 16th July this year when he stated that careful consideration is being given to an up-to-date study of shipping requirements that is being produced? Will the Minister say when a statement can be expected on the outcome of the Government's consultations and of the study?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am aware of that statement made by my honourable friend which was made during the passage of the Finance Bill. We hope to make an announcement on that subject as soon as possible but I cannot say more than that today.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, if the shipping industry is in the same state as the building and construction industry, it must be in a plight. It is not good enough for the Minister to say that the Government are holding discussions with various groups. We appreciate that, but will the Minister tell us what the shipping industry is entitled to expect from the Government, given the fact that the recession is supposed to be ending?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I said that the Government have regular contact with the shipping industry because that was the answer to the Question the noble Lord, Lord Murray, asked. I acknowledge that the British-owned shipping industry has suffered, not just during this present recession but over many years. However, the Government continue to believe that the shipping industry makes a valuable contribution to the economy. We recognise that ships are needed both for economic reasons and for defence.

Lord Greenway

My Lords, is it not time that we stopped crying about the demise of the British flag and looked instead at the total tonnage of British controlled shipping, which represents a much larger total? Should we not be thankful that, with the great reorganisation that is taking place in world container shipping at the moment, we still have very much a front runner in the shape of P&O?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I endorse what the noble Lord says. Although it is reduced in size and changed in nature, the British fleet remains a significant one. The UK-owned fleet, which the noble Lord mentioned, is over 50 per cent. larger in number, and in tonnage terms is more than treble the size of the British flag fleet. Much of the latter fleet is registered on other British flag registers.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, we have learnt from the Minister that the Government are aware of the plight of the shipping industry. Will the Minister go a little further and indicate to the House what the Government propose to do to alleviate the industry's plight?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, over the years we have taken a number of measures to increase the prosperity of the shipping industry. Under the terms of the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 the Government initiated a scheme to help with training and crew relief costs. Those measures have been successful. The shipping industry benefits from the 25 per cent. depreciation allowance and reductions in corporation tax.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that the shipbuilding and ship repair industries are inextricably linked with the defence of this country? A factor that is causing some anxiety is the drop in the number of apprentices recruited to those industries.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, the two industries that the noble Lord has mentioned are rather different from the shipping industry that is the subject of the Question on the Order Paper.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, in the light of the report researched by Warwick University calling for 10,000 additional Merchant Navy officers to be trained in the next decade, will my noble friend advise the House of the actions of his department to match that need?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, as I mentioned a moment ago we have started to offer assistance for training. The Government assist with 50 per cent. of the cost of training British merchant officer cadets. That scheme has been successful. Since the scheme began recruitment has increased from 162 recruits in 1987 to 525 last year.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does the Minister agree with his noble friend Lord Sterling of Plaistow—I perceive that the noble Lord, Lord Sterling, will ask a question in a moment—who has said that we cannot pretend that the British fleet is other than in decline, or does the Minister pretend otherwise? The British shipping industry is one of the oldest shipping industries in the European Community. Over the past 12 years the Government have presided over the steepest decline in the British merchant fleet in comparison with the state of affairs that pertains with all our competitors. When will the Minister do something drastic to arrest that situation?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Sterling can no doubt speak for himself. I have already outlined various measures which the Government have taken. We also look for progress to be made on the European front.

Lord Sterling of Plaistow

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, apart from the shipping industry's economic contribution of well over £5 billion a year, which makes it a very important part of the economy, any government which do not recognise its worth in defence terms do so at their peril? Does he also agree that without rebuilding the fleet and without training British seafarers we shall not have that defence force? Will he not also agree that whoever prefers to depend on NATO staying together and therefore being dependent on a European defence combination again does so at his peril?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, we certainly recognise the contribution made by the Merchant Navy in times of crisis. Fleet and manning levels are constantly monitored. We are currently studying our likely shipping requirements in times of conflict and the options for meeting those requirements. As I said earlier, we hope to make an announcement on that subject as soon as possible.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that these exchanges have illustrated the wide-ranging implications of the demise of our fleet? At an appropriate time will he consider the possibility of convening a high level, round table conference of representatives of shipowners, unions, marine insurers, financial interests and the Royal Navy in order to work out a national solution to this national problem?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, we have only very recently published, jointly with the shipping industry, the joint working party report. That report outlined many of the issues which have been raised in your Lordships' House this afternoon and made a number of recommendations, which are in hand, for putting those measures in place.

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