Naval Defence and Merchant Shipping (Inquiry)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:41 pm on 9th June 1982.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr John Loveridge Mr John Loveridge , Havering Upminster 3:41 pm, 9th June 1982

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to set up an inquiry to examine the prospects for improving defence from potential terrorist and other attack by the provision of missile and other defence systems for installation on British merchant ships and oil rigs; and for connected purposes. The need for such an inquiry is even greater, as well as more obvious, than when I brought my first Naval Defence (Inquiry) Bill to the attention of the House on 1 February 1978.

The Bill forms part of a series of Bills designed to alert the Government to inquire into the greater part that can be played by the Reserve Forces in supporting the Regular Armed Services of the Crown, and in providing that support on an extremely cost-effective basis.

I shall hope to cover different aspects today, but, for the convenience of hon. Members who follow closely the figures related to these subjects, perhaps I might mention that my Defence of the United Kingdom (Inquiry) Bill and my Civil Defence (Inquiry) Bill were presented to the House on 30 October 1979 and 1 July 1980.

Two weeks ago, in his address as the new president of the General Council of British Shipping, Mr. M. A. Nicolson said: The whole crisis of the Falkland Islands has illustrated, as nothing else has done since the Second World War, the vital importance of our merchant navy as the fourth arm of defence. It is essential that this island of ours has a Merchant Navy which is fully capable of carrying our vital supplies. He went on to pay tribute to the seafarers and to all those who have responded with courage to the present crisis. I know that the whole House shares in that admiration.

We must be sure that our merchant ships can be defended. We must also be sure that our merchant fleet is adequate in numbers, tonnage and the types of ships available to meet any future crisis. We have a modem fleet of nearly 1,000 ships, almost 30 million deadweight tonnes in total. The numbers of ships have declined and appear likely to decline further if the slump in world trade continues. Modern specialised cargo carriers are less adaptable than the old bulk carriers.

Sir Frederic Bolton, chairman of the defence committee of the General Council of British Shipping, has warned that the ability of the United Kingdom fleet to carry the wartime requirements of Britain is sadly diminished against the fleets of 1914 and 1939". Part of that is due to the specialisation of modern ships, which are less adaptable than of old. Part is due also to the danger that large ports might be out of use in times of crisis, and we are short of the coasters that might transport cargo to small improvised harbours. Our deep-sea fishing industry too has been cut back.

Both our ships and their crews, who have shown such patriotism in the present crisis, deserve to be safeguarded. Yet even in the 1914 and 1939 wars we were short of escort ships. In 1917 and 1942 we were in particularly grave danger. Today we have the opportunity to defend our ships with missiles of their own. The cost of a double lightweight Sea Wolf system, which would give a chance of defending important vessels against up to four simultaneous attacks by aircraft or missiles, might, I understand, be about £8 million or £10 million. Those systems have only a short range, but longer-range defence could be provided by Sea Dart. After research and development costs have been paid for, those costs would no doubt fall substantially if long production run orders were given. Although dear, the costs must surely be less than those of providing permanent Royal Navy ships as escorts.

There is also the fact that the short range of defence in some cases might make it desirable to site the weapon systems on the individual ships. Then there is the advantage that the cost of the platform would be largely borne by the Merchant Navy and not direct by the Government. That should please our ever cost-conscious Treasury.

Control can readily be maintained by commissioning the captains as reserve officers. On my previous Bill the objection was made that seamen might not wish to sail in ships with military equipment even though such equipment was not normally to be carried, but only prepared for. In the light of today's events, we can see that the objection was not valid. Many merchant seamen are serving loyally in the Falklands crisis.

The Sea Wolf system is available on a packaged basis for fitting to merchant ships. Other containerised systems are available to be fitted to aircraft. The Secretary of State for Defence is surely right in giving future priority to missiles rather than to expensive platforms. Of course, we must sustain and, I hope, expand the power of the Royal Navy. However, we must also increase the means of defence for the Merchant Navy that backs it up. We have 61,000 merchant seamen, of whom 4,000 are unemployed. The Government should learn the lessons from the present crisis and act with all speed to fit out ships now while there is a surplus of shipping laid up. Here is necessary work for engineers, dockers, steel workers and seamen; jobs that can help keep them and Britain safe. That is for action now.

I hope that the Government will set up the inquiries for which I have asked in four Bills over four years. We do not even know the figures of minimum demand or types of ships that might be required to provide Europe's civilian supplies of oil, food or raw materials in times of crisis. As Sir Frederic Bolton has said, we are left with the helpless feeling that we shall not know until too late." An inquiry is urgent and I hope that I shall be given leave to bring in the Bill