Orders of the Day — Merchant Fleet

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:50 pm on 9th July 1992.

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Photo of Mr Mark Wolfson Mr Mark Wolfson , Sevenoaks 8:50 pm, 9th July 1992

I am very glad to have the opportunity to open the debate on the defence implications of the reduction—and I immediately emphasise, the continuing reduction—in Britain's merchant fleet. The issue is not new: it has been raised in questions and debates in the Chamber and in Committee many times in the past decade, and also before that. Many right hon. and hon. Members and many Members of another place have, so to speak, hoisted the red ensign to express their worry and to warn the nation and to alert the Government to an increasing weakness in our defence system. Until now, those warnings appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

Until 1966, Britain's merchant fleet was the largest in the world, but since the mid–1970s there has been a dramatic and, some of us would say, catastrophic reduction in the size of the United Kingdom fleet and in the number of United Kingdom seafarers. The United Kingdom-owned British islands fleet—vessels owned and registered in the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles—has declined from almost 9 per cent. of the world total in 1957 to just 1 per cent. in 1991. By 1990, British seafarers employed on United Kingdom ships numbered little more than a third of those in 1975.

Early this year, the Chamber of Shipping reported that, unless urgent action was taken by the Government to arrest the decline, the merchant fleet could well cease to exist in three years' time. Even in recent months, major British shipping companies such as Blue Star and Shell among others have re-flagged some 40 ships to tax havens and hired foreign crews in order to remain competitive.

A simple projection of the decline shows that the United Kingdom-registered fleet, currently some 3·7 million tonnes, will disappear by 1995. It is already one tenth of the size it was 10 years ago, on the eve of the Falklands war. That figure is very little appreciated by the nation at large. A further 11 million tonnes is British-owned but foreign-flagged, yet, on present trends, that could also go within the next 20 years. The experience of the Gulf war, when foreign ships were chartered to transport British forces, makes it crystal clear why shipowners and naval officers at the very highest levels argue that the British fleet is already dangerously small.

In their responses to the repeated reports of the Select Committee on Defence on this matter, the Government have said that they do not share the concern about foreign shipowners and crews being unwilling to sail into a war zone, and that insurance arrangements could encourage neutrals to trade. Is that a sound view, and on what information is it based?

Britain's defence strategy now emphasises the necessity to be able to deploy our land, sea and air forces in distant places. The Falklands and Gulf conflicts demonstrated that need, and the requirements for transportation by sea. The number of British seafarers is already inadequate to fulfil the likely sea transport requirement in the event of a future conflict without mobilisation and direction of labour but—more important, because I am looking forward—unless measures are taken now to stop the decline of the merchant fleet, even that very inadequate pool of personnel could disappear.

There are no longer sufficient numbers of militarily useful merchant ships on British registers to fulfil the national requirement for sealift in an emergency. Again, that already inadequate fleet is coming to the end of its life. They are the major problems—vessels and men—and the solution is to re-establish a healthy national shipping industry.

For years, the industry has suffered from unfair competition. The Government admit that, but argue that the way forward is to persuade our competitors to stop their tax subsidies and other benefits to their shipping industries, which will achieve a level playing field. Worryingly for the British shipping industry—and, I argue, worryingly for all of us and for our defence forces —there is no evidence that progress is being made in achieving a level playing field. I believe that the reverse is the case. Other countries continue to improve their Government's help for their shipping industries. If that is not the case, perhaps the House will hear my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement give examples to prove me wrong.

I now examine in more detail some of the points that I have already highlighted in support of my arguments. A clear trend can now be seen in British strategic orientation since the end of the cold war. The United Kingdom has redefined her defence policy away from a major commitment to land and air forces for the now non-existent central front towards flexible forces available for global contingencies in a range of conflicts, be they lateral or multilateral. Our leading role in the NATO Rapid Reaction Force clearly demonstrates that, as does the new orientation of the Royal Navy away from submarines towards carrier and amphibious task forces, which are capable of projecting our power on a global scale.

Britain has chosen to play its part in the maintenance of stability in Europe and beyond by having a real ability to employ and maintain mobile and flexible ground forces. The arguments for that were used all the time in debates and questions in the Chamber when justifying the changes being made in the armed services. We have an amphibious brigade that is based in the United Kingdom, an airborne brigade and two mechanised brigades. Based in mainland Europe, we have an armoured division and an air mobile brigade. Added to that, the Royal Air Force is in a position to provide a powerful striking force.

What we have not done is define the shipping that is necessary to deploy these forces. I argue that without that shipping being available immediately as required, those forces—they are purchased at great expense—may well not be able to operate where and when we immediately require them.

We must learn from recent experience. The Falklands war demonstrated what was needed to deploy two lightly equipped brigades to the other side of the world, far beyond the reach of an airlift. We still have a continuing commitment to defend the Falklands, and that cannot in the longer term be fulfilled without sea vessels. The fact that we decided to procure a strengthened amphibious squadron for the Royal Navy implies that maritime flexibilty is still a national priority. Unless we have the sealift to back it up, there is little point in building expensive and specialised amphibious shipping.

The Gulf deployment demonstrated another sort of United Kingdom global operation—the distant deployment of a reinforced armoured division and an RAF striking force. That involved 144 voyages—70 roll on/roll off, 67 general cargo and seven container. All but eight of the voyages involved foreign-flagged ships, of which 105 were chartered, along with five British vessels. Although we were able to charter ships, there were particular features of the Gulf war that enabled that to be done. It might not have been possible to do that in other circumstances.

What were the special features? There was a truly remarkable international consensus behind the operation. No Government had to exert pressure on their seamen to co-operate. Some countries saw involvement with merchant ships as one way of making their participation real. There was only a limited threat to the coalition shipping that was involved in the sealift. That might well not be the position next time, especially as submarines are proliferating in other defence forces.

Ships were readily available, because it was the time of a seasonal downturn in the shipping market. Even more important, there was time to look for suitable shipping on the international market. In addition, total shipping demand in 1990 was probably the minimum required for such a deployment. There was the availability of the Suez canal, good fuel supplies locally, an excellent port infrastructure that enabled us rapidly to unload, and over-flying rights and landing facilities for the Air Force. Without those factors, the number of ships needed and the tonnage required could have been very much higher.

Personnel is the other vital consideration. There are not enough ships available flying the red ensign, in its various forms, to be available to service future military deployments. Whether there would he sufficient reliable personnel to man those ships is also dubious. Since 1979 —for 12 years— the number of British nationals employed in the United Kingdom shipping industry has dropped by 60 per cent.

Some of the tonnage that was chartered by the Americans for the Gulf war had crew difficulties. That demonstrates that there is no certain substitute for a country's own nationals in a crisis or a war. In the Falkland crisis. British seamen had to replace personnel who were forbidden by their Governments or their unions to take part. Unless the disappearance of the mercantile marine is prevented, the current stock of seafarers will rapidly waste away. The average age of a merchant seaman officer is now more than 40. Indeed, the Department of Transport has said that it expects a serious shortfall of United Kingdom seafarers by the year 2000.

According to some authorities, we have about 166 ships that could be reliably used as a militarily useful fleet. Those figures are frighteningly small for a country that only 20 years ago had well over 2,000 ships on its registers. I contend that the assumptions of 20 years ago still hang around. There have been many warnings in this House and elsewhere about the problems that could be caused by the decline of the British merchant fleet—yet many people, for one reason or another, still assume that the ships are there. They are not.

What about any future crisis? Each war is unique. Modern defence policy, even more so than the defence policy of the cold war, is about preparing for the unexpected. Again, those were the arguments used for "Options for Change". If we assume that a deployment were needed in future, comparable to that which went to the Gulf but in a less favourable geographical position, the demand for shipping could he very much higher. If an airlift were impossible. up to eight cruise liners or large ferries could be required to move personnel; some 60 ro-ro vessels, mostly cargo ships, would be needed to move the equipment; and about 125 general cargo ships would be needed to provide stores and ammunition. Perhaps 10 small and 30 medium-sized tankers would be required to supply fuel and water to the forces ashore and to the fleet. About three large container ships would be needed to transport aircraft.

Overall, that possible demand is far above the capacity of the current British registers—and it takes no account of attrition or action damage. We have no guarantee that repair facilities could act swiftly enough to make those ships available again during the crisis.

Then there is the age problem. The existing fleet is coming to the end of its active life. The average age of the United Kingdom-owned and registered fleet is now something over 18 years. If we take 20 years as an average for the normal life of a merchant ship, 1994 will see all five United Kingdom-owned and registered large break bulk cargo liners over age, along with 14 of the 24 large container ships and five of the seven passenger liners. Those are disturbing statistics. I come hack to my earlier point: the only way to overcome that problem is to rebuild a healthy merchant fleet on the basis of the present British shipping industry.

It is not just members of the Select Committee on Defence or Back Benchers who have been concerned about the issue. The Select Committee on Transport, in its report on the decline of the United Kingdom-registered fleet as long ago as 1987, identified various arguments for maintaining a United Kingdom-registered merchant fleet. Among those arguments was the danger in defence and economic terms of being totally dependent on others to move the United Kingdoms imports and exports and the further loss of international influence.

Surely it is not unrealistic to suggest that the defence dimension needs to be taken into account in Government policy towards our shipping industry. The French used that argument in the report on their contribution to the Gulf war. They said that the rapid and effective deployment of their merchant fleet and its ability to make a significant contribution to their forces in the Gulf war justified in their view the support that it was given on commercial grounds, but that in that case there was a justification for that support on defence grounds as well.

We know very well that the British shipping industry is asking for a beneficial tax regime of capital allowances for its ships and specific personal taxation benefits for British-based seamen. Those arguments have been deployed many times in the House, but they have not been acted upon by the Government. I believe that they should be, not only because of the commercial importance of the British merchant fleet, on which I have not focused tonight, hut, most importantly with regard to this debate and my hon. Friend's response tonight, in defence terms.

We want to hear the justification of the Ministry of Defence for its apparent complacency that all is well and that, if a future crisis arose, we would have the capability —not surely with British flagged vessels but by chartering foreign vessels—to meet our needs. I doubt that, and I look for reassurance tonight.