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 Mr John Bowis Mr John Bowis , Battersea 6:45 pm, 17th March 1997

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.