HL Deb 29 November 1995 vol 567 cc569-71

2.55 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are satisfied with cadet recruitment for the British merchant navy and, if not, what steps they propose to take to extend such recruitment.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, in seafaring, as with any industry, recruitment is primarily a matter for employers. Nevertheless we have introduced positive measures to assist recruitment such as the Government Assistance for Training (GAFT) scheme, which has helped over 2,500 officer cadets train for their first certificate of competency. We are reviewing the effectiveness of this and other merchant navy support schemes.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that the tremendous shortage of skilled seafarers in the British merchant marine is likely to prejudice opportunities as regards the UK fleet in securing advantages from the increased world trade in cargo shipping that is projected? Does not the Minister also agree that a recruitment figure of 420 cadets per year is about one-third of the number of cadets that is required if we are to be able to make that sort of contribution? What are the Government proposing to do about that?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that there are, and will be, considerable opportunities within the merchant shipping sector. I also agree that there is a problem as regards the number of recruits entering merchant shipping. That is why we have put into place some good and effective training schemes whereby the Government assist cadets who are entering merchant shipping. The Government Assistance for Training scheme, for example, has never refused an applicant to the scheme on the basis of capacity. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, that it is important to have a good flow of people coming into the industry, but his figure for those cadets corning in this year should be compared with that of 1987/88, when it was less than half that figure.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is not my noble friend concerned at the fact that the British merchant navy has shrunk so much in recent years? What are the Government doing about that?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, we are concerned about that but it has been a worldwide problem among all developed countries that shipowners have tended to flag out to other foreign registers. We are doing something about that on a wide range of fronts. We are attacking substandard shipping through port state controls. We are preventing substandard ships from operating to our ports. We are supporting training through direct assistance, the Government Assistance for Training scheme and the docks scheme. We have put forward a number of other measures to enhance the competitiveness of the British Red Ensign.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that my noble friend is a little optimistic as regards the present government cadet recruitment figure? It is 360, not 420. Is he further aware that there is a strong but unsatisfied demand from well qualified men and women for cadetships? One agency has received 1,000 applications for only 30 cadetships. Is he aware, on the other hand, that employers are not recruiting cadets because, although GAFT is in operation, the individual values of the grants are too low? Will the noble Viscount therefore consider making a substantial increase in the level of individual grants available under GAFT in the course of reviewing the future operation of this desirable innovation?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, of course we will look carefully at the level of the grant. However, I think that the industry itself accepts that the scheme has been a considerable success in helping those who seek to enter the industry. The wider problem of employment within seafaring of UK officers is a much broader issue. As I have said, we are addressing that on a number of different fronts.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, can my noble friend tell us how many ships there are now in the British merchant navy and how many there were 50 years ago?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I do not believe that I can give the figure for 50 years ago. My figure for the number of UK-registered vessels over 500 gross tonnes which trade is 271.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, will the noble Viscount consider making representations on our behalf to those who are responsible for this matter to express our apprehension that not enough is being done to resolve the problem?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the problem can only be resolved as a result of co-operation and partnership between the industry itself and the Department of Transport. That partnership exists, and we are working very closely with the industry to address the problem through the schemes that I have mentioned.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, did the intake of cadets increase after the government assistance with training was introduced? Should this not be continued, with more publicity, at a time when international regulations are fortunately becoming stricter and therefore creating a demand for British maritime skills?

Viscount Goschen

Yes, my Lords. I agree that there is already substantial demand for qualified British officers. One of the main problems arises in the recruitment and training phase. My noble friend is quite correct that, as we have heard, since the introduction of the scheme there has been a substantial increase in the numbers coming into the industry. The training scheme has helped. I agree that we still face a difficult problem.

Lord Greenway

My Lords, while the Government have taken some measures to alleviate the situation, does the noble Viscount not agree that, in the light of a forecast increase in world trade, as the result of which more ships will be needed, we shall need not only to train more seafarers but also to ensure that our shipping companies have the right ships for them to serve in? On the subject of manning, should we not also be looking very carefully at the future quality of life of seafarers, as reduced manning and long working hours have created a situation in which safety could well be compromised?

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that the international community has acted strictly to address the problems of hours of work. I agree that historically that has been a problem. I hope that British companies and British ships have been better than most. I agree with the noble Lord that there are substantial opportunities for merchant shipping. We have already heard what those are. I believe that the British fleet will be able to play its full part in that industry.