Orders of the Day — Merchant Shipping Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th November 1973.

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Photo of Mr Simon Digby Mr Simon Digby , West Dorset 12:00 am, 29th November 1973

The right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) generated a good deal of heat at the end of his speech, and I could not agree with all he said. I am a little mystified about how this misunderstanding—if that is what it is—has arisen I shall return to that topic a little later in my remarks.

I was glad that the right hon. Gentleman dealt with the broader issues of the effects on merchant shipping of modern conditions, which is a most important aspect to be considered. I was also glad that the right hon. Gentleman dealt with flags of convenience, which are a great anxiety to all of us. However, I am thankful that the British merchant fleet has increased by 50 per cent. in five years despite the trend to flags of convenience. Long may that continue.

We do not have many opportunities in this House to discuss merchant shipping, and I am glad that we have the opportunity to do so today—although within the framework of a rag-tag kind of Bill which deals with four completely different subjects. At this moment in time it is important for us to remember the debt we owe to merchant shipping and the men who serve in the merchant ships. This industry is particularly in our minds because of our balance of payments problems and also because of the oil situation. These considerations lead us to pay special attention to a subject which we are much too apt to take for granted. I am sorry that there are not more hon. Members in the House today when we are turning our minds to the shipping industry.

I am sure that many hon. Members noted in the October balance of trade figures a large figure for the import of ships—a figure amounting to £53,433,000. This highlights the way in which we are going abroad to order our ships. These ships include the largest ship in the world, the "Globtik London", a vessel of nearly 500,000 tons. I am glad that she will ply under a British flag and will earn a great deal of foreign currency for Great Britain. Another large tanker included in that figure is one of 226,000 tons. Those ships will be earners for Britain in the days to come.

I am glad to see in the earnings figures of British shipping that in the second quarter of 1973 there were credits of £475 million gross or £23 million net. If we go back to last year we see that the credits earned by British shipping amounted to no less than £1,645 million and that the net earnings of United Kingdom-owned ships carrying exports amounted to £441 million, or minus £54 million overall, but to that we should add the figure of imports carried in British ships which totals £463 million. These figures emphasise the importance of sniping to our earnings in regard to the carriage both of imports and of exports. However, it is unsatisfactory that more of our imports are carried in foreign ships as a proportionate figure compared with the carriage of exports.

In this time of oil crisis I was hoping that my hon. Friend the Minister would say something about the problem of bunkering. Our shipping cannot go on earning money if ships are not bunkered and this may also hold up our exports. A ship called the "Australian Bridge" was immobilised in the Persian Gulf only the other day because it could not be bunkered. I am not sure whether the 10 per cent. cut-back applies to the bunkering of British ships, but I certainly hope that it does not. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to give some assurance about bunkering of British ships so that our ships can go on with this splendid task of producing for this country so much money in foreign exchange.

Another matter on which I should like to comment, and which impinges on the remarks of the right hon. Member for Barnsley, relates to the forthcoming law of the sea conference. That conference was to be held in Santiago but now, for obvious reasons, will be held in Caracas. I was glad to see from a parliamentary answer only this morning that Sir Roger Jackling is to lead the British delegation there. The matters discussed will be of enormous importance to this country. There has been an haphazard attempt to extend territorial limits of coastal States. Those actions must be a great danger to the freedom of the seas. As a leading maritime power, Britain must be prepared to resist such developments.

I am alarmed at indications that, at official level, more of our people do not feel as strongly about these dangers as they should. It will be important also to distinguish between territorial limits and the economic zones. Just as we have enormous interests in the freedom of the seas, so will the big Atlantic Shelf with which nature has endowed us be increasingly important in the exploitation of our mineral wealth. It is important that we should maintain a distinction between territorial waters and the economic influence and rights over the seabed.

I am delighted that the provisions for oil pollution are being brought into effect. I am the only Member in the Chamber at present who sat on the small Select Committee on the "Torrey Canyon" disaster. After a year of work I was left with the impression that the risks from collisions and strandings remain enormous and that they will get worse because of the increasing size of tankers. No one can say when we shall be presented with fresh problems. Therefore, I am glad that these powers have been taken.