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Democrat July 2000 (Number 45)

Merchant Fleet In Crisis

Matt Baimbridge calls for action

Merchnat ship carrying gas

Over 90% of Britain's imports and exports are carried in ships, most of which are either foreign, flag of convenience or second registry. The owners of these ships make little or no contribution to the exchequer of these islands and employ crews of many different nationalities on rates of pay and conditions which are totally unacceptable to British seafarers. Because of this around 80,000 British ratings' jobs have been lost since 1960 more than half of them since 1979.

Long held recognition

The need for a nationally owned, flagged and crewed fleet has been recognised since the reign of Henry V111 when the Navigation Acts were put onto the Statute Book because of foreign ships trading on the coast. Ironically the need for a British fleet was further emphasised during the Gulf War when foreign vessels had to be chartered at extortionate rates to carry cargoes and equipment to the Gulf. Surely no better example could be found for this nation to invest in a National Shipping; Line to ensure that defence is not held to ransom by outside influences and that exports and imports will always be controlled from Britain by representatives elected by the peoples of Britain to protect the nation's best interests in peace or conflict.

To implement this the Government would need to legislate for the purchase or building of a National Shipping Line and then begin a training programme for British ratings to man them in all departments, possibly, catering ratings could be recruited from the hotel industry ashore; deck and engineroom ratings would be required to attend special schools with the facilities to train them for a seagoing career. Every rating would need to be trained in fire fighting, emergency and boat drills to British standards to ensure that they, the ship its cargo and passengers are put to sea in a safe, seaworthy and professionally run vessel.

Poor employment prospects

While it is true that the Government has made some small incentive to shipowners to register their vessels in Britain flying the Red Ensign by giving them tax concessions to do so; it would appear that very few, if any, ratings have prospects of obtaining employment in that way in the foreseeable future. The only real way forward is to have a nationally owned fleet.

It is also true that the International Transport Federation supports the principle of retention and extension of cabotage trades at national and regional levels. The ITF. are not in a position to implement such principles: this can only be done by the government concerned another reason why positive action needs to be taken by the Government of these islands.

Government must act

The Government must take real positive action to establish a National Shipping Line which employs British seafarers; for should it fail to do so within a few years seafarers in the deck and engineroom will simply die out for the average age in those departments is now over 50 years. That will give the British shipowners the same excuse that Continental shipowners used to justify employing ratings from wherever they were cheapest which was:- we cannot recruit our own nationals because nobody here is qualified to go to sea anymore. Flagging out and Second Registers soon followed with similar excuses about Safety, Manning Regulations and negotiated working conditions being too strict for vessels to remain under the national flag.

Unless the Government does something about this situation Britain will be at the mercy of shipowners and governments and financiers over whom we will have no control whatsoever.