Orders of the Day — Merchant Shipping Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:08 pm on 28th January 1988.

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Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson , Cunninghame North 7:08 pm, 28th January 1988

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed) on an elegant speech which contained a good many home truths and pertinent questions for his Front Bench. There is much to welcome in the Bill, although some points need further examination. However, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, the overall picture is that we have a mouse of a Bill to confront what I regard as a national crisis.

When the sins of the Thatcher years are finally tabulated, I believe that the destruction of the British Merchant Navy will be high on the list. It is incredible that this island nation, which still relies overwhelmingly on merchant shipping for its trade, should have witnessed a decline from 1,500 ships in 1979 to 400 ships in 1988. There is every prospect, as confirmed by the General Council of British Shipping, that that decline will continue so that, by the early 1990s, there will be about 100 ships left, almost exclusively coasters and ferries. That represents an extraordinary picture of the maritime strength and weakness of Britain in the late 1980s. I believe that those who have been responsible should be deeply ashamed.

It is a matter of some considerable interest to many hon. Members—if not, it should be—that there is not the slightest chance that a Falklands-type merchant operation could be mounted again, because the ships are not there. Recently, in the south-west of Scotland, a major military exercise was mounted—Purple Warrior. There was such a dearth of British merchant shipping that ships had to be hired from all over the western world to make up the numbers. I hope that we do not have a real conflict as opposed to a military exercise; but, if there is one, it seems unlikely that there will be time to organise the hiring arrangements before it is too late in the day.

Today, Conservative Members would like to create a mood of consensus. They would like to believe that the decline in the Merchant Navy is just one of those things that happened and that there was no political error involved. That is not the case. The destruction of the British Merchant Navy has been a direct consequence of the madness that prevailed in the management of British industry and the British economy from 1979 into the early 1980s.

When the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) had responsibility for merchant shipping, he said: It seems to me that if British owners can switch their ships to a flag of convenience and as a result increase profitability, then it seems eminently sensible to me that they should do just that. One can feel the sneer coming from those words. In the early 1980s, when Thatcherism was in full flood and everything was to be left to the market and laissez faire, such words were extremely fashionable. However, the paean of praise for flags of convenience, when quoted today, does not bring the same cries of "Hear, hear" from the Conservative Benches as it no doubt did in the early 1980s.

When it suits their purpose, Conservative Members like to cover themselves in the flag. However, in the past nine years they have shown a remarkable contempt for a flag that has served the people of this country well—the Red Ensign. It is not as though the policy advocating flags; of convenience has been entirely abandoned. No one on the Conservative Benches has had the courage today to stand up and speak out in favour of flags of convenience, but the policy of the Government, behind the scenes and through international organisations, is one of support and promotion of such flags. In UNCTAD, the British Government have been in the forefront of resistance against phasing out flags of convenience. The British Government have blocked any move attempted within the EEC maritime policy against flags of convenience. British flags are fine so long as they do not conflict with the profit interests of those whom Conservative Members ultimately serve.

Because of time I wish to restrict my remarks to flags of convenience. In the Bill the provisional granting of certificates is reduced from six months to three months. I do not believe that that is good enough. Crown territories, such as Gibraltar, Hong Kong, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda, have been turned into disreputable, flag of convenience boltholes. If a disreputable, unscrupulous or careless shipowner can gain British registration for three months, there is nothing to stop him moving that ship to one bolthole and then to the next. He will still continue to fly the Red Ensign without any of the controls that have always been assumed—prior to this Government—to go hand in hand with the responsibilities of that flag, as he travels round the globe. Surely that is unacceptable. Provisional certificates should be done away with because if shipowners can register for three months there is no way of getting them out again. I cannot understand how any Conservative Member can defend the principle that those territories, which exercise none of the controls that go with genuine British registration, should be allowed to use the Red Ensign to cover up operations that are patently substandard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mr. Fields) spoke about the number of inspectors in Gibraltar. The flag of that bolthole covered the Syneta that went down off Iceland a year ago. My hon. Friend said that, in the past year, the number of inspectors had risen from zero to two. That is even less of a step forward than might appear because the last place that most of the ships registered in Gibraltar are likely to be, or within 1,000 miles of, is Gibraltar. All the inspectors can do is check up on brass plates of addresses of convenience. We need an inspectorate system that allows inspectors of this country to insist upon boarding any ship that enters British waters, irrespective of the flag it may be flying and irrespective of the country or statelet with which it may be registered.

I believe that it is high time that we repaid some of the debts owed to the people who have served in the Merchant Navy over many years. It is tragic that communities which used to rely largely on employment within the Merchant Navy have seen that great industry disappear. Young seamen used to go on to colleges to learn the skills of the maritime industry and would travel the world as a result. Now, those colleges are closing and the courses are disappearing because there is no point in training to be a merchant seaman if there is no Merchant Navy to join. I hold the Government responsible for totally failing in the past nine years to take action because they were imbued with the market philosophy — philosophy callously represented by the words of the right hon. Member for Chingford and his lackey of those days, a gentleman by the name of Sproat, who is best forgotten.

The formation of a Merchant Navy reserve fills me with no excitement. I would regard it as ineffectual in any crisis. I also believe that that reserve adds insult to injury. In the coastal communities of this country there are thousands of unemployed seamen who would dearly love to be back aboard British ships — Red Ensign ships — working at their chosen career. That option is not open to them because, under the patronage of the Government, the Merchant Navy has come close to being wiped out. To tell those people that they are of no use to the country as seamen in times of peace but that they might get a call to do something in time of war shows additional disregard for them. It adds insult to injury.

The Government should come back to the House with a real Merchant Navy Bill. In the past nine years they have signally failed to present such a Bill to the House. That Bill should create incentives to build ships and keep them under the Red Ensign. It would act against abuses to the Red Ensign from flags of convenience. It would not give a nod and a wink to British shipowners who take their business where they want, employ Third-world labour at the lowest possible cost and disregard safety and other factors. It would introduce sabotage. I plead with the Government to do something for the Merchant Navy, for, my goodness, the Merchant Navy has done a lot for this country.