Orders of the Day — The Royal Navy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:40 pm on 19th July 1982.

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Photo of Mr Paul Bryan Mr Paul Bryan , Howden 7:40 pm, 19th July 1982

I shall devote my short intervention to the role of the Merchant Navy, a service which should be ranked on a par with the other three Services in that in a time of war all four are equally interdependent.

I declare an interest, although a very indirect one, in that I am a director of an insurance company which is owned by a shipping group, the C. Y. Tung group.

At the beginning of the Falklands crisis, the nation—indeed the world—was astonished not only at the speed with which the naval task force was assembled and dispatched but at the ease with which we appeared to be able to assemble a large supporting armada of merchant ships of the most varied type—passenger liners, tankers, minesweepers, tugs, ferry boats, roll-on/roll-off ships, general cargo ships and specialist ships—and all these in addition to the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. The speed with which these ships were modified for war with the addition of heli-decks and so on was remarkable and a tribute to the work teams.

After the Falklands conflict, Admiral Sir John Fieldhouse, the commander-in-chief of the Fleet, said: I cannot say too often or too clearly how important has been the Merchant Navy's contribution to our efforts. Without the ships taken up from trade, the operation could not have been undertaken, and I hope this message is clearly understood by the British nation. After the many newspaper articles and television features on the adventures of the "QE2", the "Canberra", the "Atlantic Conveyor" and the scores of merchant ships in the war zone, the British nation has undoubtedly got the message. What we in the House want to know is the Government's reaction to the message.

Over the coming months, surely there must be an all-embracing review covering an up-to-date examination of the strength and makeup of the Merchant Navy, the need for protection in times of war, the use of merchant ships to support and augment the fighting fleet, the defence characteristics which should be built into or added to the merchant ships and the means of paying for such, the manpower issue and the liaison arrangements on various levels to ensue a continuing exchange of knowledge and experience. We hope that the White Paper that we shall be getting shows that all these factors have been investigated deeply.

The reduction and the rapidly changing makeup of our Merchant Navy and of the other NATO merchant fleets make one doubt whether our Merchant Navy would have the capacity in a few years' time to carry out again the brilliant operation which we have been admiring over these past months.

A main point of worry must be the decline of the merchant fleets available to the West in time of war. At such times, one cannot depend on ships from Greece or sailing under flags of convenience. Such ships may not in practice prove to be available, and undoubtedly there would be crew problems on those ships.

The United Kingdom merchant fleet has declined since 1975 from 50 million tonnes to 29 million tonnes—a loss of tonnage of more than 40 per cent. Within that figure, we have lost a number of cargo liners and other ships which would have been most valuable to the country in time of war.

We are also losing trained seafaring power. In 1975, Merchant Navy officers numbered 41,000: in 1982, 28,000. In 1975, United Kingdom ratings numbered 38,000: in 1982, 26,000. All the betting must be on this decline continuing and very probably continuing at the same disastrous speed. Surely we have now to think of this problem not merely in terms of economic or employment aspects of the shipping industry but in this role of the fourth arm of defence.

The danger of the Merchant Navy becoming incapable of carrying out its role in time of war has been threatening for years. On the figures that I have just given, we have a right to hear from the Government either a reassurance that the matter is less critical than it appears—and one will need a lot of supporting evidence to be convinced of that—or an assurance that the Government recognise the imminent danger and shortly will be announcing practical measures to meet it.

There is also an urgent need, in the light of the decline of merchant shipping in most of the countries of NATO, to reassess the likely need in time of war for shipping to carry essential civilian needs, apart from the supply of warlike stores and back-up. In pages 17 to 19 of the White Paper, under the heading "Uses of National Resources", we read of the need for detailed consultation between the shipping industry and the Government about types of merchant ships particularly wanted in time of war with defence features built into them which could be built mainly with industry's money but with some help from the Government. May we be told how these talks are proceeding?

We should also remember that the continued progress towards containerisation presents special problems in time of war. A few well-directed missiles could quickly put out of action the West's main container terminals, such as Rotterdam, Felixstowe, Tilbury and so on. We should then have to rely on emergency anchorages, smaller ports and special means of discharging cargo. Some work has been done on this problem by the industry in conjunction with the Government, but probably not fast enough nor with sufficient funds devoted to it.

I consider that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence was right not to produce a new White Paper in the light of the Falklands experience. To be of use, this experience must be studied in detail and without haste. But, apart from lessons to be learnt from experience, the Falklands crisis has rubbed our noses in problems which we knew to be there but were unwilling to face.

Among those problems is the decline of our Merchant Navy and our shipbuilding industry. For all the reasons with which we are familiar, that decline will continue unless the Government intervene in some way.

In shipbuilding, the Government intervene already, for they subsidise the losses of British Shipbuilders. The extent to which we are willing to let shipbuilding decline or run down and the categories of shipbuilding that we are willing to lose have not been decided. There is no policy. Many of us were surprised to learn a few months ago that our yards can no longer build a luxury liner. At what level shall we retain our capacity to build warships?

The confusion in the public mind is illustrated by the row over the replacement of the "Atlantic Conveyor". Lord Matthews is accused of a lack of patriotism for his failure to pay out some millions of pounds above the market price to get the ship built in a United Kingdom yard. If the ship can be built in the United Kingdom only with a subsidy, there is no doubt that the Government, not the company, should be called upon to pay. That is exactly what would happen in Germany or France.

As for British shipping, the Falklands episode has shown that it is not merely the size of the merchant fleet but its composition which is all important. As its size diminishes, its composition becomes even more critical.

I finish by repeating the fear that we must all have in the back of our minds. If in seven years' time we are called upon for a "Falklands" operation and if by then we have lost another 40 per cent. of our fleet, as we have done in the past seven years, what position will we be in to face such a situation?