European Community Shipping Policy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:52 pm on 11th March 1986.

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Photo of Mr Michael Cocks Mr Michael Cocks , Bristol South 5:52 pm, 11th March 1986

I shall be brief because many of the points I wish to raise have already been adequately covered on both sides of the House. I wish to say that it is a travesty that we are here pleading for the remnants of the Merchant Navy of this country. Those of us who were brought up on Jane's Fighting Ships and the gallantry of the Merchant Navy seamen during the war find this a bitter issue to face. Bristol, which I still represent, has a very long maritime tradition and has adapted to the times—the shifting from the port in the heart of the city to the out-port of Avonmouth and latterly constructing west dock.

Our debate on these regulations stems from the loss of sovereignty which took place when we joined the EEC. It is interesting that I speak shortly after the right hon. Member for Taunton (Sir E. du Cann) because when we had our historic debate on the principle of entry he and I were here late at night and I followed shortly after him then. We both expressed reservations about the course which was to be followed. I think that the right hon. Gentleman abstained whereas I voted against it, but we were both extremely unhappy.

One of the arguments which was put forward at that time was that we should have been in at the start of the Common Market, we should have joined when it was formed and that inevitably there was a price to be paid for our late entry. However, it seems to me that we have the worst of all possible worlds. We are told that we have to pay a heavy price for not being in on the initial negotiations on entry and now we are told that some of the latest entrants into the Community are causing us some of the greatest problems. I refer particularly to what was mentioned earlier—cabotage. If we look at the countries which are said to be causing difficulties—Spain, Italy and Greece -- only Italy is a founder member of the European Community. Spain and Greece are latecomers. However, if I may use a slang phrase, they seem to be getting away with it and we seem to be pig in the middle all the time.

On Second Reading of the Bill dealing with the accession of Spain and Portugal I raised an anxiety in my own area about the bottling at source of sherry, port and different wines. I received an assurance from the Minister. However, on reflection it seems to me that we are the only country which seems scrupulously to observe all the rules and regulations within the Community. It also appears that, of all the countries in the EEC, we have pursued the most non-protectionist policy in regard to shipping and yet have suffered the greatest comparative decline. Therefore, on behalf of those of us who are atheistic or agnostic about the EEC, I urge on the Government the need to be strong about this matter.

Some years ago, in the early 1970s, I went on a delegation to the United Nations. Despite my reservations about the EEC, it seemed that one of the great benefits of joining the Community was the possibility of presenting a cohesive voice speaking as one from this great bloc, which the right hon. Member for Taunton mentioned. The size of its population and the sheer bulk of its trade would carry more weight than any of the individual members. It is true that at last some remnants of the shipping policy are coming forward but we wish it had been sooner and more cohesive. Unfortunately, there is now a tendency to talk about economic boycotts and restrictions by countries to enforce political policies and if the EEC speaks as one on this it is in a stronger position. Regrettably, we find that the rules are flouted with apparent impunity.

I should like to follow up the remarks of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Ottaway). I find it appalling that if we had a problem such as the Falklands dispute we would be scratching around to get the ships together with which to carry the men, materials and supplies. In his answer to the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, the Secretary of State said that British ships were being used to better advantage. I do not know of any better advantage to which ships can be put than taking British military and civil supplies to an area where we are in a state of conflict. If something is reduced to that sort of commercial equation, I wonder how we define the national interest.

It seems to me that during the first Saturday debate on the Falklands crisis there was a mood in the House which recognised that we had reached a very poor pass as a nation if we were scratching about to service such an operation. I hope that when the Secretary of State discusses the regulations in the Community he will try to get more cohesion and will try to press on our partners there the need to use our economic strength to much greater advantage. I did not want us to go into the Community to join a rich man's club but, in a world with such bickering and backbiting, and people not playing along, he must try to get them together. I wish him well in his efforts, but I hope that we can get more cohesion and more economic strength and do our best to keep our merchant shipping fleet going.