Assistance for Training

Part of Merchant Shipping and Maritime Security Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 17th March 1997.

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Photo of Nick Ainger Nick Ainger , Pembroke 6:45 pm, 17th March 1997

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.