Orders of the Day — Merchant Navy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:08 pm on 30th July 1982.

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Photo of Mr Jerry Wiggin Mr Jerry Wiggin , Weston-Super-Mare 2:08 pm, 30th July 1982

The hon. Gentleman's point has substantial implications for my Department, because in the event of any conflict we rely enormously on civilian resources. We are debating the Merchant Navy, but the hon. Gentleman can imagine what we would do with civilian plant and personnel in the event of war. The role of my Department is constantly to be aware of what is available.

We keep an eye, but only an eye, on such matters as the size of the trawler fleet, bearing in mind that there is a wartime role for such ships. Given the way in which Whitehall is organised, it is right and proper that the Department of Trade should look after all merchant shipping. Our interest, involvement and responsibility is simply to be aware of what is available. I understand why the hon. Gentleman made that point, and I have considerable sympathy with it, especially in view of some of the activities of requisitioning the ships that took place in the Falklands operation.

The average fitting-out time was a mere three days. That is a remarkable testimony to the enthusiasm and professionalism—not to mention the sheer ingenuity—of the naval and commercial yards involved. The labour force willingly worked long hours, day and night, to get the work done as quickly as possible.

The part played by ships taken up from trade in the actual operation needs no further elaboration, but I should like to draw attention to one important aspect that was an essential element in preparing ships for service in the South Atlantic. I refer to the briefing and training that masters and crew underwent at the outset. Many masters were already members of the Royal Naval Reserve or had attended the courses regularly run by the Royal Navy on Merchant Navy defence, with especial reference to passive defence measures for the protection of a ship and her crew.

Senior naval officers, officers of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and Royal Naval supply and transport service personnel were embarked on the larger ships. Tremendous enthusiasm to learn was shown by those masters and crews who were new to this role. The fact that ships sailed from the United Kingdom, rendezvoused with a ship of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and carried out refuelling at sea for the first time, sailing on southwards, learning to operate fully darkened and without navigation lights once clear of the main shipping routes, occasionally putting on a zigzag and operating with minimum use of radar—and all of this within 10 days—reflects immense credit on the professionalism of the Merchant Navy and the tremendous team effort by the Merchant Navy, the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary.

The House can indeed be proud of the Merchant Navy. Nor can we afford to ignore the extent to which we, as island people, are dependent on sea-borne trade for our livelihood. It is all too easy to forget that the food and raw materials on which we must depend—and will continue to do so—are brought in by sea as they have been over the centuries. Ninety-six per cent. of our imports and exports are conveyed by ships, half of these in British ships. Our Merchant Navy is the fifth largest in the world, and the second largest in NATO.

The hon. Gentleman expressed his worry about the decline in merchant tonnage. In one way or another, the Merchant Navy was able to meet the varied and difficult requirements that arose during the Falkland Islands operation. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the "Atlantic Conveyor". The details of the replacement are being dealt with now and I cannot add very much to what he will have read in the newspapers. My Department has agreed to contribute £4 million to the deal. He will be able to satisfy himself in due course that the defence interest will justify such an expenditure. The availability of a ship of this nature, guaranteed not only for emergencies but for exercises on a regular basis, will be a valuable defence asset to our reserves. One of the many lessons that will have been learned from this exercise was the way in which we were able to use the "Atlantic Conveyor". I have spoken recently with United States naval personnel who were extremely interested in that part of what happened. NATO has plans for such exercises—perhaps they will be accelerated—on a wider basis.

I shall not delve into the role of the unions in the recent crisis. The merchant crews involved all volunteered. It would be not unfair to say that the unions insisted that all the crews should be British, and on extra wages to which the Government agreed immediately. The numbers involved were somewhat larger than some of the foreign crews who were represented before. There is no secrecy or politics in the fact that many British shipowners are finding it more profitable and economic to hire foreign crews. The hon. Gentleman, in representing Southampton, Itchen, knows the economics of the matter, which are not always to the benefit of the British seamen. That is a matter of opinion and I do not wish to get into a political argument with him about it.

One of the Royal Navy's responsibilities is to safeguard British flag carriers in peace time. Although the hon. Gentleman did not mention it in his speech, that feature of the Navy's responsibilities is related to the subject that he raised. When we saw a threat to our merchant shipping in the Straits of Hormuz, after the war broke out between Iran and Iraq, we immediately established a Royal Naval patrol in the area. Currently, two warships—one of which, incidentally, thanks to the generosity of the New Zealand Government, is Her Majesty's New Zealand Ship "Canterbury"—are at notice to come to the assistance, if needed, of merchant shipping crossing those troubled waters.

By the same token, we plan to resume the practice of out-of-area deployments by a task group. This will enable the Royal Navy to visit ports in friendly countries and, where possible, to exercise with other navies, thereby consolidating our ties with nations outside the NATO area. But these deployments can also be seen as an indication of the Royal Navy's preparedness to safeguard the interests of British merchant ships operating in other parts of the world.

A great deal of work has been carried out on planning for the protection of merchant shipping in wartime. These plans, although largely prepared in conjunction with our NATO allies, extend worldwide and are regularly exercised.

The Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic is charged specifically with maintaining control of vital sea areas of the Allied Command Atlantic and with protecting the seaborne traffic of the Alliance through these areas. A major objective is the safe and timely arrival of reinforcement and resupply shipping from North America as well as of economic shipping bringing vital supplies of food and raw materials. It is the Soviet submarine that will be the most significant threat to this shipping, although the air and surface threat cannot be discounted.

It is for this reason that our own maritime forces are configured very largely for anti-submarine operations. It is the role of the naval control of shipping organisation to co-ordinate shipping movements so that the necessary protection can be afforded. Last year's major maritime exercises Ocean Safari and Ocean Venture were designed essentially to test the ability to keep open the transatlantic sea link, and a number of useful lessons were learnt as a result. The means by which protection would be afforded to merchant shipping in time of crisis were explained in detail to members of the General Council of British Shipping at a meeting with my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces earlier in the year, and I believe that this was a most valuable occasion.

It gave me a great deal of pleasure to host a dinner given by the Admiralty Board only the night before last to the general council and to representatives of firms involved with the exercise that has so recently been successfully concluded. I was able to say to the shipowners themselves a big "Thank you" on behalf of the country and the Government for the contribution which the Merchant Navy undertook and is still carrying out in supporting the task force.

I have already referred to the close relationship between my Department and the Department of Trade,. I should mention briefly the number of committees that sit to coordinate this relationship. The principal forum is the shipping defence advisory committee. The joint merchant shipping defence committee, which is chaired by the Department of Trade but on which my Department is represented, contains representatives of the industry. It is designed to improve liaison between Government and industry on planning for the direction and role of merchant shipping in time of tension or war. The Royal Navy-Merchant Navy committee, which reports to the shipping defence advisory committee, meets on a regular basis. There are other committees in the wider NATO context—for example, the planning board for ocean shipping.

I have gone into some detail in order to illustrate the regular discussions that take place between the Government in general, and my Department in particular, and the shipping industry on matters of mutual concern. A formal presentation was given to members of the General Council of British Shipping at the fleet headquarters at Northwood last week on the part played by merchant shipping in the recent operations, and I understand that this was well received and provided useful food for thought.

There are many lessons to be learnt from our experience in the South Atlantic. We shall need to share these lessons once they have been fully digested with the industry. It is important to bear in mind that the circumstances of the Falklands operations—the long distances, the absence of nearby port facilities and the appalling climatic conditions—were very different from those which could be expected to apply in the event of a European war.

The Falklands operation has highlighted the interdependence between the Royal and Merchant Navies. This debate has provided a useful occasion briefly to demonstrate the part that the Merchant Navy plays in defence thinking and to bring out the close and continuing liaison that exists between the Ministry of Defence and the shipping industry.

I wish, in conclusion, again to express my Department's appreciation of the co-operation of the industry during the Falklands crisis and of the skill, determination and great courage shown by the masters and crews of the vessels who sailed in support of the task force. It was a magnificent achievement. We are truly grateful.