British Shipping Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:18 pm on 17th December 1984.

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Photo of Mr Donald Dixon Mr Donald Dixon , Jarrow 6:18 pm, 17th December 1984

I congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) for initiating this important debate. The hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) talked about the colliers on the river Tyne. I can remember colliers, Blue Star boats, city boats and tankers lying three or four abreast, but now there are virtually no ships to be seen.

My area designs, builds, sails and maintains ships. The Royal Navy cannot be divorced from the merchant fleet, nor the capacity to build and maintain the fleet. I agree with the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) that we require a maritime policy. We have asked for a maritime policy on many occasions in the House, and the Select Committee on Trade and Industry recommended it in 1981. Britain must be the only maritime nation that has no maritime policy.

I was born in Jarrow, which was a shipbuilding town, and from the day I was born I was meant to work in the shipyards, just as someone born with a silver spoon in his mouth is meant to go to Eton. My grandparents and father were shipyard workers, and I was always being told how important seagoing was. I was told a tale about a Mr. Jenks who used to deliver manure by horse and cart. He did so, despite the arrival of gas turbine motor cars, jet aircraft and spaceships, because he discovered that with his horse and cart he could deliver manure with an economy and a certainty that pleased his customers and repaid him. Manure for the fields of England and food and goods for the rapidly increasing number of under-fed people in the world need neither missiles, spaceships nor jets; just a safe and certain means of transport so that the cost can be kept as low as possible.

If Mr. Jenks' horse became a Pegasus and grew wings, it might be able to lift about 15 lb of books from the Table and carry them through the air. However, if we taught the horse to swim, it could probably tow 50 or 60 hon. Members through the sea. Horse power is extremely important. It is important to realise that it could take 15 lb by air, but 9,000 lb by sea.

The need for a navy stems principally from the possession of a merchant fleet and the need to ensure that merchant ships have unhampered passage through the world's sea routes. General Galtieri taught Britain a lesson about the importance of surface ships and a merchant fleet; 54 merchant ships were in the task force that went to the Falklands. Everyone, from the Prime Minister upwards, or downwards—it depends how one looks at it—realised the importance of our merchant fleet. Yet, since the Falklands crisis, there has been a reduction of 200 ships in the merchant fleet. During the NATO exercise Operation Lionheart we had to charter foreign vessels.

There has been much publicity recently about the Royal Princess, which was built in Finland. It was a tragedy and a disgrace that British Shipbuilders did not tender for that ship, which is one of the finest passenger ships sailing the oceans.

Many hon. Members have mentioned the fact that the 1984 Budget was a disaster for United Kingdom shipping. The first thing that the Treasury should do is to put that right by introducing 100 per cent. fair share allowances and free depreciation, not by removing the 25 per cent. tax relief for seafarers, as is promised in next year's Budget.

In 1975, the United Kingdom fleet had 1,600 ships and a dead weight tonnage of 50 million. Now it has 700 ships and a dead weight tonnage of 18.5 million. To maintain it at that level would require new orders for 1 million tonnes every year. If new orders for 1 million tonnes were placed in British shipyards, we would not have problems such as we have in the shipbuilding industry. As the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside said, for the past nine years we have been losing two ships a week. That has happened not simply because of a decline in freight orders, but because of containerisation and the fact that British trading patterns have become increasingly dominated by Europe. For many years I worked on refrigerated vessels that took fruit and meat from Australia, New Zealand and South America, but those ships no longer come to our shores.

When the merchant ships returned from the Falkland Islands bands were playing, Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves. If the Government do nothing about the decline in the shipping industry we will not even break the waves, let alone rule them.

The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside, referring to protectionism, said that, while Britain was playing cricket, the rest of the world is engaged in karate. As an ex-boxer, I would say that, while Britain is fighting according to the Marquess of Queensberry's rules, the rest of the world is engaged in all-in wrestling. We do not have an open market. The Government must do something about the decline in shipping, shipbuilding and engine-building industries, which are important to an island nation. In a world two thirds of which is covered by water and 98 per cent. of whose trade is carried by sea, it is important that something be done immediately.