Ships' Officers (Training)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd August 1978.

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2.51 p.m.

Photo of Mr Arthur Blenkinsop Mr Arthur Blenkinsop , South Shields

I am glad to have the opportunity of raising a question on which I have had considerable correspondence with my hon. Friend the Minister. It is a question that affects not only my constituency of South Shields on Tyneside very directly but, indeed, the whole country in a sense. It is concerned with the training of those who are to be responsible for our ships at sea, which is a matter of supreme importance to all of us, and nowhere more than in my home constituency. A high proportion of seagoing officers and men are based and living in the town. This has been traditional over very many years.

I have had correspondence with the Minister on the question of installing in the Marine and Technical College in South Shields a ship bridge simulator for use in training. In his reply the Minister has made clear to me that the development of two such simulators has been authorised or recommended, with substantial Government support, but no statement has been made as to the training institution to which those simulators are to go. One prototype is already in use in Southampton, and I understand that more than one or two others are in use overseas. In particular, there is a simulator at Delft in Holland, to which I shall refer in a moment.

The Marine and Technical College in South Shields—to which we are asking that the simulator should be sent, and to which it should be attached—is an internationally famous college, training some 3,500 full-time marine students, of whom 500 are overseas students. It is, I think, the largest training college, or at any rate one of the largest training colleges, in this country, and is renowned throughout the world.

We have been somewhat concerned because the Department of Education and Science—I realise that this is not my hon. Friend's responsibility, but I hope that he may have a word about it with his ministerial colleague—is at the moment insisting upon a cut-back of about 10 per cent. in the number of overseas students, and is apparently trying to apply this generally to technical colleges all over the country.

We are dealing here with a unique situation. A large number of the overseas students are on short-term courses of a matter of a few months, and there is no comparison with the position of the average student in the average technical college. What is more, the overseas students are very largely employees of British shipping firms. This again puts the matter in a rather different light. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to have some conversation on this important matter. Indeed, I dare say that he is already in touch with the Department about it.

This marine college serves not only the town of South Shields, where it is a very important institution and quite vital to the town. It also serves the country as a whole, and particularly the North-East of England. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) is present. He has a close interest in the shipping industry and knows how important this matter is.

We regard this exciting new development of the simulator—I understand that it is of British design—as of very great importance indeed in the campaign to increase safety at sea. I am sure that that is why the Minister's Department has been pressing for the production and allocation of further simulators of this kind.

A matter of rather special interest is that Delft University, where a simulator of a similar kind is now in use, has appointed one of the senior staff from the Marine and Technical College at South Shields on secondment, in effect, in order to help in the preparation for the use of the simulator and in the training of the staff there. This would make it all the more absurd if the very institution that is internationally recognised for this particular purpose were not to be chosen when the opportunity arises to allocate the simulator.

Clearly, it is vital that a college of this sort should be able to maintain its very high reputation for the work that it does. It has, after all, had in use for some years a radar simulator, and is one of the leading institutions for the use of radar simulators. We are, therefore, most concerned that the college should not slip back. We want it to remain in the forefront and to have this latest possible acquisition which is needed for training purposes.

Another aspect of the question is the housing of the simulator. It is right that the Government should be concerned not only with the allocation of the simulator but with ensuring that it is properly housed, so that proper use can be made of it. In this connection, there is the possibility of making use of an historic listed building in Shields which was at one time a customs house. It has been agreed by our expert advisers that this old customs house would, with suitable alteration, be an excellent building for the purpose. What makes the matter all the more important is that the Manpower Services Commission has made clear that it would be prepared to meet the bulk of the cost, which is quite considerable, of repair and adaptation of this building, and that it would use the opportunity to provide work and training for unemployed and other workers in the area.

We therefore have this offer, which we do not want to lose, of adapting the building to the requirements for the use of the simulator and doing the other very important job of adding further training for unemployed men. Alas, as the Minister will know, we are one of the most seriously affected areas in the country in terms of unemployment. It would be of enormous value to be able to get that combination of bringing this building, which has been out of use for some years, back into such very good use and at the same time doing a most valuable training job.

My real concern is lest there should be long delay in making a decision about allocation, because we cannot take up this option of reconditioning and development until a decision as to allocation is made. My deep anxiety is that if the building were to be left in its present state much longer it might no longer be usable for this eventual purpose. It might no longer be worth while to spend the very consideable sum of money in restoring it and making it fully acceptable for this new purpose.

I have a very special reason for appealing to my hon. Friend for his support. He may know that I have also some extra personal reasons. In one of the last speeches, if not the last speech, that I am able to make in this House, it pleases me very much that it should be in respect of such a worthy purpose and should be of such considerable importance for those whom I represent. Here I am speaking not only on behalf of those who work in the shipping industry, but also on behalf of my constituents generally and those living in the wider area.

As my hon. Friend knows, I am chairman of our own shipping group in the House. We have all been very concerned about what appears to be increasing dangers of safety at sea through collision. There is no doubt—and I know that my hon. Friend is well seized of this—that the training of those who sail our ships is of the utmost importance. I would be particularly personally grateful if on this occasion he can tell me that there is every reasonable assurance that one of these simulators will be allocated to South Shields, and to the Marine and Technical College at the earliest possible opportunity and, above all, that we can get started on the work of repairing and restoring this building for its use.

3.5 p.m.

Photo of Mr Edward Garrett Mr Edward Garrett , Wallsend

It is a personal pleasure for me to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop), who may have made his last speech in this House, although we cannot guarantee that. I am obliged to him for drawing to the attention of the Minister and the House the importance of this project.

As I am sure the House is aware, shipbuilding, and those who sail the ships are an important facet of our industry in the North-East. Because of my other activities in the House, I have been able to observe a simulator at work. To the uninitiated, it may sound like a medical term, but I can assure hon. Members that it is not. It is a highly complex piece of British technology of which the nation should be proud. It enables men on the bridge of a ship, from the master downwards, to experience what it is like, with only certain points of guidance, to sail a ship in darkness. This is of immense importance to those who sail our huge super tankers and other large vessels in narrow waters and channels. It is also of immense importance to those ships which carry vital cargoes of oil in and through the approaches to the English Channel.

I should like to place on record my thanks to all those engaged in the company which produced this remarkable piece of technical skill. It will be of immense use in our export drive. I know for a fact that other countries are intensely interested in its development. At the present time such a simulator operates in only one place, at the nautical college just outside Southampton. I regret to say that because of the demand for its use only ships' masters or captains are at present allowed to use it. I should like to see such a facility extended to other officers and cadets. However, at the present time, there is only one. It costs a lot of money to produce a simulator—£500,000. If we can produce and manufacture more, then clearly we shall have a big advantage in exports.

However, we are presently concentrating on the United Kingdom, I feel that in South Shields, where we have a marine and technical college equal to, if not superior to, any other in the world, an additional simulator should be installed. This is not merely a question of one-upmanship. I should like to see it installed because the people there have the skills and technical expertise to operate it. There are people, who have often spent a lifetime at sea, who could advise and guide others coming on the course. Above all, it would enable people to develop their expertise as first-class mariners. I would say with respect that the North-East, more than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, produces some of the finest ships' captains. This simulator will give them that additional edge which will allow them to handle these large ships in extremely difficult conditions. It will also allow them to handle such ships with normal navigational skill.

The Minister has probably anticipated my question. I know this is all a matter of economics. I know that because of cost only a certain number of these simulators can be installed. However, I wholeheartedly support the plea by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields that at least one of the new simulators, which is a tremendous advance in this area of technology, should be installed in the North-East. There is no better place than South Shields, because of the facts that my hon. Friend has stated. South Shields has the building to house this type of equipment and additional facilities to house and board the people who will come to these courses. The demand for these courses is enormous. People come from every maritime nation in the world to use the simulator.

I hope that the Minister is in a position to give my hon. Friend and me a favourable reply—not merely to two Members of Parliament, but to the whole of the North-East, which would always welcome such a boost.

3.10 p.m.

Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central

My hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend (Mr. Garrett) said that he could not guarantee that the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) would be the last that he made in this House. I have no desire that it should be so, because my hon. Friend has served this House in a ministerial role, and also as a distinguished member of the Labour Party. He has also been the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party shipping group for a number of years. I have had a continual dialogue with him and his colleagues about matters affecting the safety of shipping. If perchance it should be his last speech, I do not think that he could have gone out on a better or more constuctive note. I hope that whatever happens he will continue to offer his experience and expertise in these matters to whoever holds this office in future.

My hon. Friend, reinforced by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend, has made a powerful, constructive and persuasive plea for a simulator at the South Shields Marine and Technical College.

For many years the Government have been much aware of the important role of the North-East of England in maritime affairs. My own marine division has an ample number of people from the North-East serving in it. The South Shields Marine and Technical College has always been to the fore on matters of training. It has numerous courses for masters, deck officers and engineering officers. It has cadet training schemes, radar observer courses, electronic navigational aid courses, fire fighting and sea survey courses, just to name a few. These are of great importance to the training of our Merchant Marine,

I have been conscious of the positive efforts made by the college to keep abreast of modern techniques. I know that South Shields was among the first in the field to implement radar simulation in 1960, and I have recently read the report of the head of the nautical science department in which he has shown his concern about falling behind international competitiors in the ability to provide some of the more sophisticated hardware that is available today and which is so necessary in modern tuition. Indeed, the desire of the college to install a ship simulator was brought to my attention by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields only three weeks ago. I am grateful to him for doing so.

In November 1977, a sub-group of the tanker safety group, which had been set up by the Department of Trade to consider the various aspects of tanker safety and operation, was formed to investigate ways and means of implementing a better standard of passage planning and navigational procedure in United Kingdom ships.

This sub-group produced its report in early March 1978, and this was taken by the tanker safety group on 16th March —perhaps with hidden intuition, since this was the day the "Amoco Cadiz" ran aground. That news, incidentally, was broken to me whilst I was visiting the ship simulator at Warsash—a bitter irony.

Amongst other things, the report recommended additional courses using a ship simulator and the ordering of two additional ship simulators to meet this and present-day training requirements. As the House will know, there is only the one ship simulator in commission in this country at the moment—at the College of Nautical Studies at Warsash in Hampshire.

I found the simulator a most remark able piece of enterprise. The way in which it is operated is fantastic. I hope that more hon. Members will have the opportunity to see the invaluable service it offers to the safety of shipping.

The recommendations of the sub-group are currently being examined in detail by the Merchant Navy Training Board, the body responsible in this country for co-ordinating and implementing training policies for the officers and crews of our merchant fleet. There can be no doubt that all are agreed on the urgent need for at least two additional simulators. Further study may show the need for more, but since the time taken to commission a ship simulator from the date of ordering is about two years, I am anxious to progress the implementation of these recommendations as speedily as possible.

The House will be aware of the successful conclusion four weeks ago of the international conference on standards of training, certification and watchkeeping for seafarers, held by IMCO. The convention that was adopted by this conference lays down minimum standards at sea that are acceptable on an international basis, and I am conscious that this country must remain amongst the leaders in training Merchant Navy masters, officers and ratings to the highest standards so that we can rest assured in the attainment of the maximum possible safety at sea. Ship simulators have an extremely important part to play in the realisation of this ideal.

Photo of Mr Edward Garrett Mr Edward Garrett , Wallsend

I would like the Minister to emphasise that the technical skills and technology that have brought about the simulator should be stressed to the rest of the world. We do not want to keep the simulator for ourselves. We see a world market for it and we are prepared to sell this technology to other maritime nations.

Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central

That is absolutely right. Shipping is not simply a matter of national concern for us. We are concerned about shipping safety in the international context. That is why I referred to the very important development at IMCO in June and July this year.

The first international conference in marine simulation—abbreviated title MARSIM 78—is scheduled to take place at Southampton from 5th to 8th September this year, and this in itself shows the international interest in this equipment, particularly the simulators currently operational here, in Germany, Holland, Japan, and the United States. We have a massive contribution to make in this regard.

The House will see from my remarks that the Government are anxious to progress our Merchant Navy training facilities as expeditiously as possible. However, there remains one matter of import that has not as yet been resolved—the problem of expense. At today's prices, each of these simulators costs about £500,000, and in today's climate this is a lot of money to be found. We cannot ignore that fact. It is not, of course, a matter for my Department to resolve in isolation.

We must continue to explore all the possibilities with both sides of the shipping industry, with the various training agencies and with other Government Departments. It is my opinion that, wherever the money is found to be forthcoming, it will be money well worth spending since if this form of training prevents only one more maritime disaster it will have paid for itself.

Apart from the question of finance, we shall have to decide how best we can employ simulators on a geographical basis. There is no doubt that their optimum usage is in tandem, when a 25 per cent. increase in student output can be achieved. One simulator can serve 288 students per annum; two simulators in tandem can serve 720 students per annum.

There are many other factors that will need to be taken into account—such as the present know-how of the training staff and the prudent usage of that know-how, the actual training need in various parts of the country, training interest of prospective students from other parts of the world, the simulator's export market and whether to use daylight or nocturnal simulators or a combination of both.

My Department, at this time, will hold full discussions with all interested parties, and although some will obviously have to be disappointed, I assure my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields that the representations of his constituency will be given the fullest consideration. His plea was powerful and persuasive. Our concern will be to locate any additional ship simulators we can afford to allow their most effective utilisation in the training of present and future masters and officers. I am sure that the South Shields Marine and Technical College will rate highly in these deliberations.

I turn to the two specific points raised by my hon. Friend. He referred to the subject of overseas students at South Shields and he will know that this is a matter for the Department of Education and Science, with which I understand the South Tyneside authorities have already been in touch. I am informed that should those authorities make a submission to the Department for a phased reduction, the case will be sympathetically considered.

On the point made by my hon. Friend about the siting of the simulator, I am aware that the Department of Education and Science has approved alterations and adaptations to the West Park lower comprehensive school of about £110,000.

The provision and location of bridge simulators will have to be resolved as soon as possible, but it is questionable whether the simulators which are self-contained in Portakabins would not lose some of their flexibility if they were housed in a building in a semi-permanent fashion. Detailed plans for the renovation of the old comprehensive school are a matter between the South Tyneside authorities and the Department of Education and Science. I am afraid I cannot go into that aspect any more because it is outside my departmental responsibility.

Photo of Mr Arthur Blenkinsop Mr Arthur Blenkinsop , South Shields

The point is that we are trying to use not that principle but the principle that this building has been approved as a proper building and that we can now begin to prepare for it, with the help of the Manpower Services Commission—which will cost us very little.

Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central

I follow my hon. Friend's point. Again, it does not fall to me to resolve the matter, but I shall make sure that the representations my hon. Friend has made in that respect are passed on to the appropriate Minister.

This has been a useful debate because it has focused attention—quite apart from the question of the siting of the simulator, which is tremendously important—on this vital development in maritime safety. Having seen the simulator for myself, I am in no doubt that the masters who have the most tremendous experience at sea are able, as I learned at first hand from one of them, to reinforce that knowledge and expertise. That can only be most helpful not only to the masters but to the crews they serve, and indeed to others who are dependent upon the safe passage of these very large vessels through the international seas.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wallsend that this is a remarkable piece of technical skill. British industry has every reason to be proud of what has been achieved. I hope that it will not be long before we are able to announce specifically to the House that more simulators will be available. As we rapidly move towards the Summer Recess, I want my hon. Friends to feel that their pleas have not fallen on deaf ears.