HL Deb 29 June 2004 vol 663 cc128-30

2.57 p.m.

Lord Harrison

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the rules governing the application of the United Kingdom minimum wage for ratings on British-registered merchant ships; and what is the effect of these rules on the recruitment of British ratings.

Lord Triesman:

My Lords, the national minimum wage applies to mariners employed on a UK-registered ship unless their employment is wholly outside the UK or they are not ordinarily resident in the UK. Foreign seafarers qualify for the minimum wage when they are serving on UK-registered vessels trading in UK waters. The effect of the minimum wage on the recruitment of British ratings depends on the crewing decisions of individual shipping companies, which are matters for the companies themselves.

Lord Harrison:

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Is he in a position to say whether the tonnage tax introduced in 2000 has had the beneficial effect of increasing jobs for British ratings? Have the Government considered reforming the Race Relations Act 1976 and the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 to ensure that all ratings on UK-registered ships are paid the full minimum wage?

Lord Triesman:

My Lords, recent research by the London Metropolitan University analyses the position on UK ships and that probably provides the current best statistical evidence. It shows that there were about 28,000 active seafarers in 2003, a slight decline from the 30,000 in 1997. The figure has risen again to about 28,000, which represents a small recovery, and there is a parallel small recovery in the number of officers.

There is no loophole in the Race Relations Act. Section 9 was amended last year to allow payment of foreign seafarers at differential rates on UK-registered ships on the ground of nationality only. I point out to your Lordships' House that it is possible—indeed, it is easy—for ships to be reflagged in order to avoid any such regulations.

Lord Bradshaw:

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the effect of insisting that all ratings on British ships, wherever they are, are paid at British rates would be a large part of the present British fleet being flagged out to avoid that happening?

Lord Triesman:

My Lords, there is a distinct possibility that that is what would happen. It is relatively easy to reflag a ship. Indeed, in the past 24 hours I have come across evidence that, by logging on to an on-line site in Cambodia, one can reflag a ship in slightly under 15 minutes.

Earl Attlee:

My Lords, can the Minister say what the situation is with regard to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary?

Lord Triesman:

My Lords, I do not think that the Royal Fleet Auxiliary is fully covered, but I shall check that and write to the noble Earl to confirm it.

Lord Harrison:

My Lords, can my noble friend say how often the Inland Revenue has inspected UK-registered ships to ensure that the minimum wage is being applied?

Lord Triesman:

My Lords, the Inland Revenue is responsible for compliance and, certainly, if it is aware that minimum wage regulations are being broken, it makes inspections. But other inspections are also undertaken under port authority regulations on matters of safety on board ships, contamination, and so on. In all such cases, I am happy to say that reports place the United Kingdom's registered ships at the very top of the international league.