Assistance for Training

Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 6:28 pm on 17 March 1997.

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'. In section 56 of the 1995 Act (financial assistance for training), after subsection (3) there is inserted—

  • "(4) In providing assistance in accordance with this section the Secretary of State shall have regard to the maintenance and development of the United Kingdom's merchant fleet and marine related business and for that purpose shall—
    1. (a) keep under review all aspects of that fleet and business; and
    2. (b) seek the advice of those who appear to him to have experience of that fleet or business.
  • (5) In this section, 'marine related business' means any trade, business or other activity concerned with the manufacture of, or the provision of goods and services for, or the operation or use of ships and includes maritime educational establishments, marine classification societies, marine equipment suppliers, marine surveyors, marine and naval architects, marine insurance companies, protection and indemnity clubs, provides of maritime financial or legal services, the operators of ports and harbours and shipbrokers.".'—[Ms Glenda Jackson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 6:35, 17 March 1997

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The purpose of the new clause is abundantly clear. It underlines the importance that training has always had not only for the safety of lives at sea but for the maintenance and therefore the ensuring of safety of the ships in which people sail. It is of particular importance given the Bill's framework.

I do not think that it would be an exaggeration to say that this nation has set the benchmark not only for the training of seafarers but for the introduction and maintenance of many of the safety measures that, over the years, have reduced loss of life at sea and been instrumental in steps being taken in this country and in the wider international community on the very serious issue of pollution and its potential risk should such strict safety standards and training measures be eroded. It would however be quite wrong to mislead hon. Members into thinking that what has been is what faces us now.

In common with all other merchant fleets, the British merchant fleet is undoubtedly operating in a severely competitive climate. Over the past 18 years, we have seen a serious decline in the number of ships flying the red ensign. The number of ships on the United Kingdom register has declined from more than 1,200 of 500 gross tonnes or more in 1980 to only 240 ships of an equivalent tonnage today. At the same time, there has been an even more staggering decline in the number of registered UK seafarers. In 1980, there were 60,000 seafarers, but there are just about 20,000 today. That figure includes some officers who are employed on foreign-flag vessels.

As this nation has set the benchmark not only for training but for the maintenance of safety standards on our vessels, British-trained crews are undoubtedly much admired and desired by international competitors. In a study commissioned jointly by the Department of Transport, the Chamber of Shipping Ltd. and the Marine Society, which was conducted at the University of Wales in Cardiff and published in March 1996, it was, however, identified that the need for trained seafarers is the exclusive preserve neither of shipping companies nor owners but of many land-based related industries.

It is extremely interesting to see the wide variety of businesses, industries and commercial enterprises that are in a sense dependent on having as part of their personnel people who have obtained sea-going qualifications and are experienced in the area. The obvious ones are surveying and ship inspection companies, cargo surveying firms, classification societies, ports and port services and, of special relevance to the Bill, organisations committed to pollution control. The list is long and runs to many pages, and I do not wish to delay the House. The study by the University of Wales in Cardiff identified approximately 17,000 land-based jobs that employers much prefer to fill with ex-seafarers, but the number of mariners—and the number who present themselves for training, certainly in the cadets—has declined.

The Government have taken steps, via the DOCS—development of certificated seafarers scheme—and the Government assistance for training—or GAFT—scheme to encourage people to train as mariners. From conversations I have had, I do not believe that young people are any less willing to look to the sea for their future careers than they have ever been. Last year, at one of our much-prized, internationally recognised nautical colleges, some 1,000 young people who wished to dedicate their lives to the sea competed for a limited number of places.

It is remarkable—and we should take pride in the fact—that 50 per cent. of all ship broking is conducted through the Baltic exchange in the City of London. The City is the primary area for all maritime business, nationally and internationally. People are concerned that if standards of training, and the numbers entering such training, decline, that primacy could be lost.

The purpose of the new clause, which I hope that the Government will consider favourably, is to ensure the widest possible consultation and discussion in the maritime industry on how we can expand and increase existing training schemes, as well as incorporate individual ideas from a variety of sources. It has been argued that the individual, land-based businesses should take on the exclusive responsibility for training, but such training schemes would be dependent on the size of the company. Many such companies, which make a considerable contribution to the nation's economy, are small, and it would be impossible for them to engage in training schemes. If we had wide-ranging consultation and discussion, companies could present a compilation of their ideas.

I shall end where I began. We are a proud maritime nation. We have set benchmarks for the international community in training, standards of seamanship, maintenance and safety procedures. I hope that the Government will look kindly on the new clause, because we should expand our activities in this area, not decrease them.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Administration Committee

I speak in support of the new clause. My father was a merchant seaman. He served as a stoker in the merchant navy from 1936 until his retirement in the 1960s. He was torpedoed on three occasions during the war. A seaman's occupation affects his family directly. When my father complained about safety at sea, he was disciplined and the family lost wages. A seaman at sea is under maritime regulation and can be disciplined differently from a worker on land, who can complain about health and safety with no repercussions. At sea, it is impractical for a complainant to step off the boat. Seamen who have spoken up about safety have been dismissed and left at the next port.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

In that context, I remind my hon. Friend that, traditionally, if a man was swept overboard from a company-owned trawler, the wages given to his wife or mother were docked from the hour he was knocked overboard.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Administration Committee 6:45, 17 March 1997

That is true and my hon. Friend may be able to expand on that point. My mother was paid fortnightly through a seaman's allotment. If my father's wages were docked or he was put off the boat in Egypt or Montreal, it might be 14 days before my mother discovered that he had been disciplined. I know that the position has improved, but the point is that good safety training on our sea-going vessels—the few that are left—is a must. Those British men and women who have the honour of serving in our merchant navy are entitled to the best possible training. Those in charge of our able seamen, stokers, stewards and others should also have the best training. I hope that the new clause will improve the situation, and I support it.

Photo of Dr Norman Godman Dr Norman Godman , Greenock and Port Glasgow

I am happy to support the new clause. Will the Minister confirm that fishing vessels fall outwith the United Kingdom's merchant fleet? If that is so, I hope that the Minister—if he is sympathetic, as he often is, to our case—will pay serious attention to the need to emphasise the training of our fellow citizens who are employed in marine-related businesses and the fishing industry, as well as those in the merchant fleet.

Safety training is especially important. I need hardly remind the Minister about the two terrible losses that we have just suffered. Allegations were made in Scotland over the weekend that the Arbroath, which foundered a few days ago with the loss of its crew, snagged its gear on a pipeline. Whatever the truth of those allegations, it is essential that those who go to sea, on any vessel, should be given the best safety training. The Minister will not be surprised to hear that such training should include training in donning immersion suits. Men may have only a few minutes to put the suits on. They are not easy to put on, especially in the darkness and if the sea is running and the vessel is going down. That is the sort of training that all our seafarers should be given.

Safety is of the essence, and the Under-Secretary and the Secretary of State have agreed with me on this in the past. I would like the measures dealing with the merchant marine to include also the fishing fleet, where safety is also important. If a vessel is going down, but the men and women on board have time to put on survival gear before going into the water, excellent equipment is important. I told the Under-Secretary in Committee about the French fishermen who had to jump off their ship west of St. Kilda. Those who had time to put on their survival suits survived, but the other men died quickly. Safety is of the essence, as is safety training.

Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger , Pembroke

I wish to support briefly the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson). Many people believe that the reason for the decline in the British merchant fleet has been the far cheaper charters offered by flags of convenience, and that may be true in some sectors. But we must remember that our continental partners—particularly Norway and Denmark—have been able to maintain substantial merchant fleets and, in certain areas, have expanded them.

The tragedy for the British merchant fleet has occurred in areas where, initially, Britain led the way—I am thinking in particular of the United Kingdom continental shelf, where many of the supply vessels which operated in the late 1960s and early 1970s were owned, operated and crewed by British people. Since then, there has been a significant decline in the proportion of the British merchant fleet operating on the United Kingdom continental shelf. Some of it, admittedly, has gone to flags of convenience with relatively cheap crews, but a significant part of the market has been taken by Norwegian, Danish and German-crewed vessels.

If, as we well know, the officers and crew of Norwegian, Danish, German and Dutch vessels are paid extremely well, why on earth is the British share of the market so small? The same is true in relation to tanker fleets, where the Norwegians and the Danes have been able to maintain a significant and flourishing sector. Any Government must address the issue of why there has been such a huge decline—as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate—in the British sector of the world merchant fleet. We must find out why countries with high-quality training and well-paid crews—any British seaman would give his right arm for their terms and conditions—have been able to maintain, and improve where necessary, their merchant fleets.

Other significant areas must be addressed, such as new build and how we support the merchant fleet not just on the United Kingdom continental shelf, but in the world market. The tragedy is that the British merchant fleet has shrunk to such an extent that it will be difficult to build it up to what we knew and appreciated in the 1960s and 1970s.

Photo of Mr John Bowis Mr John Bowis , Battersea

I am grateful to the hon. Members who have spoken in the debate. In moving the new clause, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) talked about this country's great maritime traditions, and she was right. Those traditions have been based on a quality of seamanship that has been the envy of the world, and many of those qualities have been the result of the training given to our seamen.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin)—in a moving tribute to his father's experiences—highlighted some of the risks, dangers and problems faced by our seamen. The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) reminded us of the most recent tragedies affecting fishing boats and the men who put to sea in them. Our thoughts go to the families of the crews of those two ships which had such a sad end.

The hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow asked whether the fishing fleet was covered by the related section of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995. The Act does apply to fishing vessels, although it does not apply to the matters referred to by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate. The hon. Gentleman rightly drew our attention to the need for equipment and clothing, and we have referred him in the past to the guidance that is available on this matter. His points are well taken on board.

The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) had a wider shopping list than is addressed by the new clause. However, British training benefits British seafarers—no matter what ship they are sailing in. We should bear that in mind as we look at our training record.

The new clause is unnecessary, but I want to make clear that the Government are very much in favour of consulting those with an interest in seafarer training or those with relevant expertise and experience. We are against imposing needless bureaucracy and superfluous regulation. The Government's record shows clearly that we support well-thought-out and targeted schemes for seafarer training.

I wish to refer the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate to the implications of the wording of the new clause, which caused me to have some doubts about it. The problem is what the new clause could do in practical terms. As drafted, the new clause could mean—among other things—that when the Government wished to make an adjustment to a seafarer training support programme, the Secretary of State would be obliged to consult all those presently engaged in the merchant fleet and all those engaged in marine-related businesses, as defined. It could also mean that the Secretary of State would be obliged to consult all retired members of the merchant fleet and all retired practitioners in marine-related business.

There are issues on which it would be valuable to have the advice of harbour operators, naval architects, manufacturers of the specialist equipment used on board ships and ship builders but, at first sight, the new clause would seem to oblige the Secretary of State to consult them all—whether they had relevant experience or not. The hon. Lady developed her point to make clear that she is not looking for something rigid, but for as wide and as sensible consultation as possible.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate referred to two training support schemes by the Government. The GAFT scheme has been running since 1988 and assists cadet officers. Since 1988, it has helped to fund some 4,000 trainees at a cost in excess of £18 million. During that time, no eligible candidate has been refused assistance. Junior officer training is supported by the DOCS scheme, which is in its third year of a pilot exercise that has helped to provide nearly 1,000 junior officer berths.

The Department of Transport currently spends some £4.3 million a year on these highly successful schemes, and the value and skills of British seafarers are recognised the world over. We estimate that some 5,000 British seafarers work on foreign-owned and flagged tonnage. British seafarers and their training are success stories of which we should be proud. We have kept the operation under review and we have proposals to integrate the programmes to make better use of funding. We are consulting the relevant bodies, including training providers, trade unions and ship owners. We do all that already.

Our assistance for seafarer training also takes account of the need for trained seafarers in shore-based establishments, especially those that constitute what we know as maritime London. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate paid eloquent tribute to the Baltic and others. As she said, the consultation under way on changes to our training support scheme follows the study by the University of Wales that was jointly commissioned by my Department, the Chamber of Shipping and the Marine Society. That underlines the Government's recognition of the importance of the contribution made by British shipping as a whole to the nation's well-being.

Because we have kept developments in the merchant fleet under review over the years we have been able to take steps to promote the competitiveness of British shipping. Apart from the generous support that we have offered to seafarer training we have, among other things, changed the registration law to allow bareboat charter vessels on the United Kingdom register and introduced roll-over relief on capital allowances to encourage the replacement of aging tonnage.

We do a great deal already, and to that extent the new clause is not necessary, but in the spirit of co-operation that has prevailed on the Bill in both Houses, and in the spirit of Donaldson, to which we have tried to listen and respond at all stages, I am content to accept the new clause.

7 pm

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

I thank the Minister most sincerely for accepting the new clause and for underlining the spirit of openness and eagerness to ensure that the Bill completes its passage through the House which all of us who had the privilege to serve on the Committee have enjoyed. We all benefited from the great expertise on particular subjects that resided in more than one member of the Committee.

It was not our intention in tabling the new clause to place an enormous burden on the Secretary of State or his Department, necessitating consultation with absolutely everybody with any association, however remote, with the maritime industry, whether at sea or on land. It is undoubtedly the case that practical experience is usually the greatest teacher, and no classroom is more severe than that of the sea. Much expertise and experience can be brought to bear.

It is important to note that the Bill will place new requirements on various parts of the maritime industry. Consultation and the sharing of knowledge and experience can bring benefits to all concerned. Information technology is making inroads in what have been the traditional methods of navigation and it is important that training should keep pace with the scientific and technological advances.

Once again, I am grateful for the Minister's acceptance of the new clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.