Part of Orders of the Day — Merchant Shipping (Liner Conferences) Bill – in the House of Commons at 11:33 am on 11th June 1982.

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Photo of Mr Terence Higgins Mr Terence Higgins , Worthing 11:33 am, 11th June 1982

I join the Front Benches in paying tribute to the magnificent work done by the Merchant Navy and its members in the Falklands conflict. All hon. Members are profoundly impressed by the skill and courage that they have shown. Those of us who have been at sea in difficult and dangerous conditions appreciate their tremendously difficult task. I also echo the points made to the effect that it is vitally important that we have a strong and adequate Merchant Marine. This has been brought out by the Falklands crisis.

Trends over the years have not been wholly to our advantage. The fact is that our shipping industry is immensely efficient, which has meant that it has not been necessary for the Merchant Marine in this country, unlike other countries, for example, the United States, to be subsidised. We have maintained the size of our fleet on the basis of efficiency and keeping down costs. The provisions within the Bill that are likely to create a less competitive environment in which costs tend to rise and in which our share of the market is not reflected by the efficiency of our Merchant Marine, are a cause for concern.

The Minister gave a categoric assurance in Committee that the Government were wholly opposed to the extension of the cargo-sharing arrangements into the bulk trades. I take that to mean that we shall not merely express a view at international shipping conferences but that we shall actively oppose any moves to extend the cargo-sharing provisions to the bulk trades. Many hon. Members will be watching carefully to see the line taken by the Government in any such negotiations.

There is considerable cause for concern that some of the developing countries do not stick to, or abide by, the letter of the code and that this is to the disadvantage of countries such as the United Kingdom that do abide by it. It is essential that the Government, having gone along with the provisions of the code and put forward the Bill, ensure that developing countries take a responsible line within the confines of the code.

I viewed with some concern an article in the Financial Times on 8 June referring to the fact that the Indonesian Government have apparently decreed unilaterally that Government-owned goods shall be entirely carried in their own shipping lines. That is a worrying development. This has happened, I gather, despite the fact that provision is generally made when we extend export credit to ensure that some of the business goes to our own shipping lines.

The United States Government have apparently already protested about this decree but the British Government and the EEC, some months later, have not positively done so. It is not good enough, if the House is to pass this type of legislation, for the Government and the EEC not to take urgent action if developing countries seek to impose unilaterally the sort of measure that the Indonesian Government have introduced, outside the provisions of the code. The Government should take positive action to protect our national interest and to ensure that goods are not carried by high-cost, inefficient lines. Matters should be kept on a competitive level. Otherwise, consumers will clearly suffer.

The Bill, as it stands, is, in some senses, significantly better than when it was introduced. We have done quite a lot of work on it. I wish to pay tribute to the unfailing courtesy and sympathetic response of the Minister despite all the complexities. He has done a good ministerial job in answering the debates. I feel bound to say, however, that my doubts about the Bill are, if anything, even greater than at the time of Second Reading. I hope to see more improvements made in the other place. I shall, therefore, not wish to oppose the Third Reading.