Orders of the Day — Merchant Fleet

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:35 pm on 9th July 1992.

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Photo of Mr Jonathan Aitken Mr Jonathan Aitken , South Thanet 9:35 pm, 9th July 1992

Towards the end of my speech I shall announce the results of the review. As I said earlier, the frissons of excitement that seem to be building up may not be entirely justified when the announcement is made.

I was about to turn to the historical theme, the necessity for preparedness, touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby. In recent history, there has rarely been a time when the strategic uncertainties of a changing world, and the changing threats that come with it, have posed such difficult challenges and questions to defence planners and Ministers.

It remains a near certainty that in times of tension or war the United Kingdom will need a significant number of merchant ships. The hon. Member for Motherwell, North tried to bowl me what he thought was a clever question about the definition of a time of crisis. I can only say that a time of crisis is when the House of Commons has the kind of debates and exchanges that took place at the time of the Falklands or the Gulf war, which suggest that we are in an hour of national crisis. Parliamentary indicators are as good a signpost of crisis as any.

It is a virtual certainty that in such times the United Kingdom will need a significant number of merchant ships for European and out-of-area reinforcement. The merchant ships will also be required to support naval operations. It is possible that with lower force numbers, longer warning times, larger aircraft and newer methods of transportation, such as the channel tunnel of which my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks was once such an ardent enthusiast, we may have a more flexible task when providing such reinforcement and support. Nevertheless, the importance of merchant shipping for Britain's defences in an emergency remains pivotal. There is little doubt, therefore, that the theme of this debate is correct: a healthy British merchant shipping industry may have to provide a vital lifeline and supply line to British forces in an hour of peril.

In an ideal world we should like to have a large pool of British-flagged, British-crewed vessels to choose from in time of war or crisis. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world when it comes to the health of the British merchant fleet. We share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks at the decline in the number of British-registered vessels—I have already said that it is down to 321 vessels of 500 tonnes or above. However, we do not believe that the situation is so critical that we could not manage to carry out the type of crisis resupply and reinforcement task that faced us at the time of the recent Gulf war or at the time of the Falklands invasion—tight and more difficult though that task might be.

May I remind the House of what happened at the time of the Falklands crisis and of Operation Granby for the Gulf? In Operation Granby 109 foreign-flagged vessels and five United Kingdom vessels were engaged in the reinforcement and movement of men and equipment to the Gulf. On the return phase, 81 foreign vessels and three United Kingdom-flagged vessels were chartered. The cost of the operation was about £140 million.

We had no difficulty in obtaining all the British forces shipping requirements on the open market. Virtually all the movement of men was done by air, hut the equipment was largely moved at sea. Although some might say that it was disappointing that the United Kingdom-registered vessels represented a comparatively small percentage of the operation, that was a voluntary decision on the part of the British shipping industry. Lord Sterling wrote to The Times during Operation Granby to say that the British shipping industry was then extremely busy with existing contracts and did not necessarily wish to hid for the contracts that were on offer to the shipping industries of the world. We were able to undertake Operation Granby successfully.

At the time of the Falklands crisis 52 merchant ships were used, the majority of them British. Half of them were requisitioned, half chartered.