HL Deb 01 March 1994 vol 552 cc938-40

3 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

What representations they have received from the Chamber of Shipping, the seafaring trade unions and others concerning the adequacy or otherwise of the recently announced package for the United Kingdom merchant fleet.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, we have received 10 written representations in respect of the 15th December 1993 announcement.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, is it not a fact that virtually every interest in the shipping industry has expressed deep concern to the Government— unions, employers, banking interests, Lloyd's Register, the Salvage Association and many more— about the tremendous decline in the British fleet, the fact that it is not only declining but also ageing rapidly and that it is 33rd in the world rankings at the present time, after even Romania, Malta and the Marshall Islands? What are the Government proposing to do about that? So far they have singularly failed to act in the dramatic way that is required. Is that not a fact?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, among the 10 responses I referred to, the Chamber of Shipping, while it would undoubtedly have liked the Government to go further, was supportive of what we were doing in the package and what we are doing with regard to the British shipping industry. I fully endorse what the noble Lord has said. We all, including the Government, are concerned about the decline in UK shipping but we believe that the steps we took in December will begin to reverse that decline.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the purpose of abolishing the requirement that the three chief officers on merchant ships should be either British or of Commonwealth nationality is to depress the wages and conditions of those officers? Does not the Minister agree that the prospect of a British registered ship captained by a Pakistani with a Filipino first officer, a Turkish chief engineer and a Chinese crew is not conducive to maintaining the standard of safety for which British merchant vessels are renowned?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, the regulations on British officers which are currently in place encompass a number of other nationalities, including Pakistanis as they are members of the old Commonwealth. Therefore it would not be new for a properly qualified Pakistani chief officer to be on board a British ship as the British officer, as the regulations have permitted that for some time. As regards the second part of the noble Lord's question, I can assure him that we intend to ensure that the non-British officers on British flagged ships will be required to meet the standards we require in terms of technical competence, their English language ability, their health and, where appropriate, on British maritime law.

Lord Clark of Kempston

My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that two of the reasons for the reduction in merchant shipping are the arrangements for capital allowances and the differential that exists between the position in this country and that in other countries where in the latter case subsidies and fiscal incentives are given? Would it not be a good idea for Her Majesty's Government to impress upon our competitors, particularly in Europe, that subsidies do not lead to a level playing field and that competition is being distorted because of differences in fiscal advantages?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, for a moment I thought my noble friend was going to advocate subsidies, which I thought would be a little strange. However, I am delighted to hear that my noble friend is sticking to his long held principles that subsidies distort the market. What we are doing, and what we ought to be doing in this field as well as in every other, is to ensure that there are no subsidies distorting the market and that the free play of market forces is allowed.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, bearing in mind the decline of the shipbuilding industry and the employment prospects for British seafarers, apparently the only thing that will be British about the British merchant fleet is the Red Ensign. Can the Minister give a guarantee that at least the Red Ensign will be made in Britain?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am always surprised to hear indications that noble Lords opposite do not adhere to the international flavour of socialism, as I thought that was what socialism was all about. The important thing about our Merchant Navy, and the merchant navies around the world, which we all ought to remember is that we require them to move the goods we export in a cheap and effective way. I believe we are ensuring that they can also do that safely.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, has the Minister any figures on the number of ships registered in Liberia, Switzerland, Romania and "Wonderland" which are owned by British companies?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am not sure I can give the noble Lord exactly the figure he is looking for, although I suspect that the Swiss figure is not high. However, I believe that I have now found the figure. There are some 530 trading ships over 500 gross registered tonnes which are owned in the UK and some 273 of those trading ships are flagged in the UK.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, what steps will be taken to examine the qualifications of foreign nationals who might be employed as officers on British ships? Will pieces of paper be taken at face value or will they have to sit some form of exam?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, that will obviously depend entirely on the certification that they have. Clearly if they hold a certificate from a well known flagging country whose standards we are familiar with, an English test will be fairly straightforward and simple. If it is a case of a rather less well known certification, the surveyors will have to go a little further in exploring technical competence.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, was not the original Answer not only startlingly complacent but also a little short on the actuality? Is it not a fact that all these bodies which have made representations to the Government may have said that the December package was of some value, but it will not begin to resolve the desperate plight of the British fleet? Did they not warn that if present trends are allowed to continue we shall have no deep sea merchant fleet? Do not the Government recognise that these are serious warnings and that they have to go far beyond the December package if any rescue operation is to be created?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I do not deny that the situation is serious. Indeed this morning I received a briefing from one shipping organisation on the whole question of flagging out and the officers employed. I must admit that this matter is much more complicated than I thought the day that I walked into this job. There are many more factors to be taken into account than it would appear. However, I can assure the House that we are taking steps, as we did in December, to determine how we can help the industry without going down the road— I come back to the comments of my noble friend Lord Clark of Kei-npston— of competing in the subsidy game with some of our competitors.