Merchant Fleet

– in the House of Commons at 9:50 pm on 17th November 1997.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Jamieson.]

10 pm

Photo of Mr Ivan Henderson Mr Ivan Henderson Labour, Harwich

Madam Speaker, may I take this opportunity—[Interruption.]

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Wait a moment, please. This is the hon. Gentleman's maiden speech, so could those hon. Members leaving the Chamber do so quickly, because others want to hear him?

Photo of Mr Ivan Henderson Mr Ivan Henderson Labour, Harwich

I thank the Minister for Transport in London, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), for coming here to respond to this important debate and to my maiden speech.

It is impossible to represent the constituency of Harwich without having a feel for the sea and all that is connected with it. One of the first recorded naval battles involving an English king took place in what is now Harwich harbour, when King Alfred defeated a fleet of marauding Danes. Since then, the spot has been known as Bloody Point.

Far less bloody was the most recent skirmish in Harwich, which resulted in my election as the first Labour Member of Parliament for the constituency. Fortunately, my opponent was not a marauding Viking, but lain Sproat—the then Sports Minister. While the encounter was keenly fought, I would like to record that it was a good-tempered and honourable affair. I will never forget the generosity and dignity with which Iain Sproat was the first to congratulate me at the count.

Iain Sproat had at various times been both Shipping and Heritage Minister—two issues undeniably linked with the Harwich area. No part of the constituency is more than a few miles from the sea, and all the major population areas are on the coast. The sea plays a vital role in the local tourist industry, and the popular resorts of Clacton, Frinton, Walton and Dovercourt, with their beaches, piers and entertainment facilities. The sea is equally important to the town which gives the constituency its name.

The sea, through the ships and port-related industries, has given Harwich a place in history. Harwich was the first landfall for the ships which defeated the Spanish armada, and was the site of a Royal Navy dockyard, established during the wars against the Dutch. As HMS Badger, its large natural harbour gave it a vital role during the second world war.

Throughout history, the Merchant Navy fleet that has served this country so well has been at the very heart of Harwich, providing employment for those living right across the east of England, and not only in the immediate area of the Harwich constituency. It is for that reason that someone like me—who has lived in Harwich all his life—is desperate to see our maritime heritage preserved and its future secured.

Before the privatisation of Sealink by the Conservative Government, thousands of British seafarers were based in Harwich. Daily passenger and freight services linked Harwich with the continent, all but a handful of which were British-flagged, British-crewed ships. Now there is only one—one freight ship with 30 or 40 British seafarers aboard.

Such decimation of the local Merchant Navy fleet has had a massive impact on the economies of all the towns in the immediate area. I am aware that the same story can be told all over the country, and that flags of convenience and investment by other Governments in their own seafaring industry have affected most ports where our proud maritime heritage has been built up over centuries. I now believe that it is time that everyone became aware of that.

Our Merchant Navy fleet is a national asset, and this country's maritime industry is desperately in need of the support it so richly deserves. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has stated publicly that the Labour Government are committed to working with those in the industry to help to develop its economic potential, and so reverse the decline and safeguard our maritime future. He has made it clear that that includes preventing unfair competition and ensuring that our own shipping industry is not further eroded by the exploitation of the freedom of the seas. That is what I wanted to hear, and I assure the House that the people of Harwich also wanted to hear it.

Our seafarers have traditionally been regarded as highly trained, highly skilled professionals. That reputation has been earned, and it is something that a British Government should be proud to promote and keen to build on. Sadly, as we all know, the previous Government were content to see it undermined, undervalued and underused in the name of market forces.

Market forces do not maintain safety standards, nor can they be used as an excuse for allowing the exploitation of third-world nationals who have never had the advantage, training, experience or expertise of our own seafarers, and who can be forced to work for meagre wages. At a time when the global economy ensures a vital role for transportation by sea, we should be promoting excellence, not allowing it to rot on the dole queue.

A couple of months ago, the BBC asked to spend a day with me in order to make a programme about the new Labour Member of Parliament for Harwich. I was more than happy to oblige. It was decided to make the programme on the new high-speed ferry link between Harwich and the Hook of Holland. The programme was very good, and making it was a most enjoyable experience; the ship is an incredible achievement, providing a fast, smooth and pleasant way to cross from England and Holland. Unfortunately, I had to accept that we were making the crossing on a Dutch-crewed ferry; we had to do that because no British seafarers are any longer employed on that passenger ferry route.

For 100 years, there had been British seafarers manning the passenger ferries between Harwich and the Hook of Holland. My election came just after the last of them were cast aside because it was cheaper for the ferry company to employ Dutch seafarers. The policy of the Dutch Government has been so successful that, during 1996, 50 new vessels were attracted to the Dutch flag. I congratulate the Dutch Government on their sense of vision—if only the previous Government in this country had had one eye open, we might not be experiencing our current difficulties.

We are on the very edge: those with experience are disappearing fast, and the training that ensured a ready supply of young, highly motivated seamen to replace them has long since been denied to our youth. The Government have already identified the problem and are preparing to act. Support for maritime training—SMART—will commence next April, and will not only ensure that training is available but will make explicit provision in standards of training for the modern era. A few years ago, I would not have described it as smart—I would have called it common sense, but unfortunately the Tories did not agree.

All the evidence points to the simple conclusion that high standards increase efficiency, improve safety and reduce the risk of accidental pollution of the seas. As one who represents a constituency containing important areas of coastal wildlife and towns reliant on tourism, coastal pollution is a major concern. We are all familiar with the effects of oil washing up on our coastline. Without a doubt, prevention is better than cure, and ensuring that ships moving along our coastline are manned by highly disciplined crews will reduce the risk of accidental pollution. These areas must be tackled internationally. To do that, we must take the lead. We must show how ensuring the best training results in the best service and, in the long run, the best value for money. We must show the rest of the world that we mean what we say; promoting our own highly efficient industry is, after all, the best way to prove that.

Every hon. Member does what he or she can to promote their constituency. I am fortunate in having a constituency that includes so much that is worthy of promoting. The Minister will no doubt recall her visit to Harwich, when I was able to show her the Electric Palace, the oldest purpose-built cinema in the country. Thousands of Royal Navy veterans trained across the river at HMS Ganges and have fond memories of Harwich. Millions of holidaymakers have enjoyed a day trip to the seaside at Clacton, Walton or Frinton; and many millions still travel through our beautiful countryside on their way to crossing the North sea to mainland Europe.

The Harwich constituency has the ports, the industrial capacity, the tourists and leisure facilities—and the knowledge and expertise to make the most of all of them. We are proud of our history and heritage, and we are determined to build a secure and prosperous future. The same applies to the British Merchant Navy.

Samuel Pepys is regarded by many historians as the saviour of the British Navy. He it was who arranged for a naval dockyard to be built at Harwich, and he brought another man, Anthony Deane, back to his home town to oversee it. Pepys was the Member for Harwich, and in 1679 Deane joined him as the town's other Member of Parliament. I am the first Harwich man since that day to be elected Member for Harwich. I was born within a few hundred yards of the dockyard. I went to a school that bore Sir Anthony Deane's name. Until this May, I had spent all my working life in shipping-related work.

All around the country, seafarers, dock workers, ship builders and shipping agents want a strong and vibrant future for our maritime industry. It is our responsibility to do everything possible to ensure that such a future is secured.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Labour, Brent North 10:11 pm, 17th November 1997

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Henderson) on his maiden speech on this extremely important topic. It is important because 95 per cent. of all our imports and exports come in and leave by sea. At £2.6 billion, shipping is our fourth biggest service earner, and we carry 4 per cent. of world trade in our vessels, which on the whole are well managed, technologically advanced and run with some of the highest safety standards in the world.

Shipping's contribution to British invisibles is enormous, and maritime London's pre-eminence relies on the raw material which former masters and chief engineers provide. They bring their expertise to the offices of the Admiralty solicitors, Lloyd's of London, the Institute of London Underwriters, the Baltic exchange, general average adjusters and the merchant bankers who finance the fleets. The industry is fundamental to maritime London and the whole service sector that depends on it.

I have an interest to declare, in that, before arriving in the House, I used to run a company of general average adjusters—so my interest in the debate is more than a passing one. In that capacity, I was invited last week to give the keynote address at the European ship managers conference in Glasgow, on the subject of crewing and training.

I am delighted to say that, after 18 years during which the Conservative Government went through more Shipping Ministers than Liz Taylor went through husbands in the same time, the shipowners and managers to whom I spoke in Glasgow expressed their profound thanks that this Government have a transport team—including the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Transport in London, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) —who are clearly committed to the maritime industry. My right hon. and hon. Friends are going to be around for a long time; they understand the industry, and they want to get it right.

In limited time, I do not want to dwell on the former Government's record—the decline in our fleet by two thirds, the 50 per cent. decline in the contribution of the UK-owned fleet to the UK service sector, the 55 per cent. decrease in its contribution to gross domestic product. I shall focus on the fact that the numbers of British seafarers have declined by 60 per cent. since 1980, from 52,000 to 20,000.

The Cardiff report shows why it is fundamental that the Government take the actions that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich mentioned to put the support for maritime training programme into effect. The report predicts a frightening shortfall, and the implications for the whole UK maritime sector are equally frightening.

I am glad that the Government have taken the initiative on SMART. Unfortunately, it has come late in the day, but that is because the Government were not previously in a position to put it into effect. I am delighted that they have done so, and I am sure that the Ministers will have our full support in all that they are doing to improve crewing and training in this country.

10.15

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Henderson) on an excellent maiden speech, and on his generosity in allowing an intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner). My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich has chosen for his maiden speech a topic of particular importance to the Government, a fact highlighted by the presence on these benches of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and many other colleagues. The fact that the matter is not of importance to the Conservative party is emphasised by the absolute emptiness of the Opposition green Benches.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich brings a wealth of personal experience and commitment to what is not only his constituency but his birthplace. He described the degree to which the sea has influenced his constituency, from King Alfred's day to the present time.

The reliance of Harwich, and the United Kingdom, on the sea remains undiminished. Shipping is crucial to all of us, a fact perhaps not sufficiently appreciated, for 95 per cent. in weight of our trade—77 per cent. in value—is carried by sea. Ferries to and from our islands carry more than 55 million passengers a year. The UK shipping industry and maritime London contribute substantially to the UK's balance of payments.

Without shipping, our country would not have defended our interests in the past; without shipping we could not maintain our quality of life today. We all rely on the sea, whether for our food, for the goods we use, for transport, for leisure or for our defence.

However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich said, in recent years we have witnessed a dramatic decline in the size of the UK merchant fleet and in the number of trained British seafarers. That cannot be allowed to continue. The Government are committed to halting the decline and giving the industry its due prominence. Let there be no doubt: we believe that a revival in the UK fleet is long overdue.

That is why we have established a shipping working group to see how Government and industry, working in partnership, can reverse the years of decline. The group's first meeting takes place this week. It will include representatives from the Chamber of Shipping, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers and the Transport and General Workers Union. It will consider how to obtain the maximum economic and environmental benefit from shipping, how to reverse the decline in the UK fleet, how to increase the employment of UK seafarers, and how to encourage the wider maritime industry to commit more resources to seafarer training.

Our object must be to encourage a high-quality shipping sector, able to flourish in increasingly competitive markets. I hope that the group will maintain a healthy balance between exploring innovative and well-constructed ideas and maintaining the momentum and sense of urgency necessary for such an important issue. I hope that it will not be another talking shop; it is action that counts.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is keen for the group to produce a package in time for inclusion in our White Paper in the spring.

Shipping is a high-tech, high-quality industry, demanding drive, commitment and determination. A competent, well-trained crew must be the most significant factor, not only in terms of the contribution to individual companies but in the wider context of maritime safety and environmental protection—a point also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich. We must do all we can in this, the International Year of the Seafarer, to ensure that the prospects for that invaluable national asset—the British seafarer—are not neglected.

The United Kingdom already has a high standard of seafarer training, but many of the ships that call at our ports, pass our shores or carry UK passengers are crewed by seafarers who have not been trained in the UK. It is therefore important to secure high standards of training worldwide. Proper implementation of the International Maritime Organisation's revised standards of training, certification and watchkeeping convention will be central to achieving that objective. The UK played a leading role in updating STCW, and we have subsequently been determined to apply its provisions promptly and effectively.

When I gave the opening address to the IMO assembly this morning, I reaffirmed our support for the international safety management code, which aims to create a safety culture embracing those on board ship and those ashore. Passenger ships, tankers and bulk carriers must achieve ISM code certification by 1 July 1998. UK ships required to comply are well on course to do so, but many recent reports show that some companies do not take the deadline seriously, and that a large number of ships may not comply in time. Some have even speculated that the deadline might be extended.

The IMO secretary general has stated that the deadline will stand, and the United Kingdom Government fully support that. We shall ensure that effective action is taken to deal with non-compliant ships arriving in our ports after the deadline, and we are working with our European partners to ensure that measures are in place to achieve that throughout the Community.

In addressing the IMO, I focused on implementation, which is the key to improving safety standards around the world. The Government firmly believe that the primary responsibility for safety rests with the flag state. We can no longer accept the apparent abdication of that responsibility by some flag states. The UK is taking the lead at the IMO in developing proposals to ensure that that is dealt with.

I am determined to involve as many parties as I can in the general debate on raising standards. I am particularly concerned that some of the service providers in shipping, such as bankers and insurers, which are crucial to the very existence of the shipping industry, are often not directly involved when policy issues are discussed and decisions on regulations made. I wish to change that.

Next month, as an experiment, I shall host a seminar with representatives from maritime London to hear their ideas about what they can do to help us improve standards. I trust that that will lead to more dialogue in the future. We are also working to ensure that all shipowners have the means to meet their liabilities to third parties. That policy, which is supported by the Chamber of Shipping, should protect responsible shipowners from unfair competition from operators of sub-standard and uninsured ships.

We shall continue to work to ensure that all UK ships continue to enjoy the navigational rights and freedoms enshrined in the international law of the sea. We are now better able to do that following our accession to the UN convention on the law of the sea this August.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich referred to the importance of training, which must be a priority in any maritime policy that is committed to creating a meaningful and worthwhile future for the British shipping industry. We are under no illusions about the scale of the task required to ensure an adequate supply of seafarers, not only to serve at sea but, ultimately, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North said, to provide the pool of experience essential for the whole range of maritime-related industries.

Last year's university of Wales report into the UK economy's requirements for people with experience of working at sea concluded that, even to maintain the present maritime status quo at sea and ashore, the industry needs to recruit 1,200 new cadets a year, against a current intake of about 400. Clearly, that problem needs to be addressed urgently.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich referred to the new support for maritime training scheme—SMART—which commences next April. SMART will be a flexible long-term vehicle to deliver Government financial assistance for seafarer training. It will improve the delivery of training support by integrating the existing GAFT—Government assistance for training—and docks schemes into a modular training scheme to operate under a single contract and budget.

New modules will make explicit provision for ratings and will provide support for STCW skills upgrading. Although SMART will initially focus funds on the key priorities of new entrants and ratings, its modular nature should mean that it is possible to add other elements, as required and as funding permits.

SMART is simply the vehicle. Whether we are able to make a fundamental difference will depend on the industry's commitment to forging a real partnership, and, in so doing, contributing to the achievement of our common objectives. Government support can therefore only ever provide half of the equation. For any training scheme to make a truly significant impact, the active support of all sides of the industry must be engaged. That is why we will be looking to the industry to make a direct contribution, through actions and financial commitment, to the training of future seafarers.

Although there have been some notable exceptions, for too long much of the maritime-related sector has regarded training as the shipowners' problem, and too many shipowners have simply failed to invest in training. We cannot allow the issue to be side-stepped. If Government are now facing up to their responsibilities, so too must the shipping industry.

I am hopeful that the working group will provide the vital spark necessary to encourage more companies to start training programmes, and for the industry to pledge additional funding to supplement Government support.

With matching levels of drive and commitment, it must surely be possible for this partnership to make real progress towards the common goal of increasing the number of highly trained seafarers.

I conclude by again thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich for raising such an important issue for discussion. Few can doubt that the industry has reached a critical point. Responsibility falls to both Government and industry to ensure that we take full advantage of the great opportunities that lie ahead. With world seaborne trade growing at a rate of 4 per cent. a year, we must do all we can to revitalise British shipping, and to take our nation's fair share of the prospective growth.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Ten o ' clock.