EC Shipping Industry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:45 pm on 29th November 1989.

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Photo of Mr Ronnie Fearn Mr Ronnie Fearn , Southport 9:45 pm, 29th November 1989

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I am new to the topic and I wanted to find out what the union felt. Perhaps in future it will let me have that information. However, we are both speaking on the same lines.

My interest in, and knowledge of, shipping arises from the fact that my constituency borders the Mersey. Shipping in the Mersey is very important, although there is much less of it now. My local authority of Sefton includes the freeport of Liverpool, which is doing very well. Will the Minister make clear whether what we are discussing will have any bearing on the operation of free ports? Perhaps he will enlighten me, because I am not sure whether this matter has a bearing on free ports and the one in Liverpool would be interested to know.

I note that the Government have chosen to use their own statistics to put a positive light on the shape of the shipping industry. Although there may have been some improvement in the past year, the statistics provided by the EC working group should not be ignored. They highlight a dramatic decline in the shipping industry in Community countries over the past eight years. The tonnage of Community merchant fleets of ships registered with member states halved between 1981 and 1988. When taking into account vessels registered outside the Community but controlled by Community-based companies, the European fleet is down by 28·3 per cent. in 1987, in comparison to 1981. This cannot be blamed on a general decline, as, in the same priod, the world fleet declined by only about 8 per cent.

Competition from countries outside the Community, including Third-world and developing countries where costs tend to be much lower, has led to measures aimed at reducing operation costs being taken by member states. Because of their uneven application, these have heightened the competition between member states. This probably works to the disadvantage of the Community as a whole. Another aspect of this competition is the expansion in offshore or international registers by shipowners wishing to take advantage of lower registration costs and little or no taxation or using non-Community seafarers to reduce wage costs under poorer conditions.

I was most interested to see that by the end of 1987 there was more tanker tonnage registered in the Isle of Man than in the United Kingdom. The expansion in the use of crews made up of those other than member state nationals, or even Community nationals, raises another issue of concern, which is defence. Market forces may provide adequate merchant shipping to meet consumer demand, but who owns, operates and controls merchant ships at a time of national crisis?

Present world events may be welcomed and may lead to the conclusion that the danger of war between the super-powers has receded, but there is no guarantee that that is so. There is certainly no guarantee that another Falklands war will not arise. I sincerely hope, however, that that is not the position and that another war of that sort can be avoided, as I believe the Falklands war could have been. It is important that there are adequate numbers of merchant ships and trained national seafarers at the Government's disposal to meet a national crisis and to meet NATO commitments.

The proposals in the documents, especially the proposals to have a Community register, may go some way to meeting our concern. I am aware that the strict manning conditions attached to a European register of shipping —EUROS—raise concerns that it will act as an impediment to the objective of greater competitiveness of the Community fleets. We should not lost sight of the many social and economic advantages that the Community gains from the employment of Community nationals.

Perhaps more importantly, I support the aim to acquire European standards that embody high technical and safety requirements. I believe that we should be arguing for a high and uniform set of standards to apply to all ships sailing in European waters and into European ports. I should like to see the Commission's work devoted much more to these aims. I welcome the opening of the coastal and offshore markets, and hope that Britain will find that they work to its advantage.

The Government could do more to help our industry. I have no doubt that the British shipping industry does not compete on equal terms with the industries of the rest of the world. In many instances, it works at a disadvantage to most of the countries within the Community, especially in terms of taxation and manning costs. Countries that have focused on these matters in recent years include Denmark, Germany and Norway, and they have all seen a revival of their national fleets. Perhaps it is time that the Government considered ways of reducing manning costs through the remission of taxes and national insurance costs in a way that benefits the employer as well as the seafarer.

I welcome moves to harmonise conditions and practices in the interests of safety and of European unity and strength. I recognise, however, that proposals in the documents before us raise certain pointed questions. There is concern about whether the proposals meet the objectives that are set out. In the meantime, I hope that the Government will consider introducing their own measures to make the British shipping industry more able to compete on an equal footing with the industries of the rest of the world. My right hon. and hon. Friend and I will not be supporting the motion.