3 Mar 2003 : Column 595

House of Lords

Monday, 3rd March 2003.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Rochester.

MoD Ship Charters

Lord Burnham asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether ships chartered by the Ministry of Defence to transport British military forces to the Gulf will be re-flagged to the Red Ensign; and whether they will be required to operate with, as a minimum, a British master.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach): My Lords, UK Armed Forces personnel are being transported to the Gulf either by air or on Royal Navy ships. Any decision to re-flag ships chartered to transport cargo to the Gulf is given careful consideration. Factors informing any decision include the planned use of the ship; the requirement to carry military escorts and the current nationality of the flag state. Four of the ships chartered for the current operation have been re-flagged to the Red Ensign. The nationality of crews is a matter for the ships' owners.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, which to some degree is satisfactory. Would it be possible to re-flag these ships to the Blue Ensign as fleet auxiliaries? As regards ships other than the four to which he referred, are the contracts tight enough to prevent their national owners insisting that they take part in an operation not in accordance with the wishes of Her Majesty's Government?

Finally, will the Minister reply to the second half of my Question?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the contracts with the owners of the ships are sufficiently tight. The difficulty is that there has not been time to re-flag the ships under the Red Ensign. Where we have done so, it has been crucial; where we have not, it has not been crucial.

I hoped that I had answered the second part of the noble Lord's Question when I said that the nationality of crews is a matter for the ships' owners. In other words, they are not required to have at minimum a British master.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that the security of these ships is being taken seriously, considering that they will have to travel through the Suez Canal and past Yemen and that ships have previously been attacked off the coast of Yemen?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, will not expect me to go into details.

3 Mar 2003 : Column 596

However, I can tell him that a number of important security measures are in place to protect chartered vessels, their crews and the cargo, including but not limited to, first, the careful routing of the ships, to which his question has relevance; naval shipping providing protection where deemed necessary; and embarkation of military protection parties. On all those ships, there are always on board UK military escorts.

Lord Berkeley: My Lords, am I correct in my understanding of my noble friend's Answer; that it would theoretically be possible for these ships to be crewed and mastered by Iraqis? Surely that would not be sensible.

Lord Bach: My Lords, it is theoretically possible but I do not believe likely.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, does not the Red Ensign designation confer the entitlement to have armaments on deck and to man them, as was the case in 1939?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I must confess that I do not know the answer to the noble Lord's question relating to 1939, but I promise that I will find out and write to him. I understand that the equipment on the deck of these ships is not on display.

Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, the noble Lord used the word "crucial". Under what circumstances would it not be crucial for these ships not to carry the Red Ensign?

Lord Bach: My Lords, there were a number of negatives in that excellent question. Perhaps it is best if I tell the noble Lord that the ships which have been re-flagged have been part of the amphibious task group sailing with ships of the Royal Navy and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and staying on station. This is front-line shipping and that is the reason why those particular ships have been re-flagged.

Lord Greenway: My Lords, will any of the 40 or so ships which have been chartered on a commercial basis be affected by the recent decision of the Turkish parliament under which they may have to have their charters extended in order to move equipment from Turkey to the Arabian Gulf?

Lord Bach: My Lords, there are 58 chartered ships, of which a number are UK-chartered. I understand that the decision, or non-decision, of the Turkish parliament will have no effect.

Lord Vivian: My Lords, expanding on the security issues, does vetting of the crews of ships flying foreign national flags and the Red Ensign take place when they are carrying British military equipment to

3 Mar 2003 : Column 597

the Gulf? What security measures are taken to protect those ships from terrorists posing as crew members?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I must be cautious in how I answer that question. It is not possible to carry out security checks on the crews of commercial vessels chartered by the Ministry of Defence due to a number of circumstances. They include, primarily, the short-notice nature of the Ministry of Defence charter requirements; the rapid turnover of crew members; and non-residency in the United Kingdom. Of course it would be desirable to do so, but in the real world it just is not practicable.

As regards security measures, I repeat what I said to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. Security measures are in place, some of which I referred to in my answer to the noble Lord and others I would rather not go into.

Lord Peston: My Lords, will my noble friend enlighten me on one matter? I thought that a large part of the world's merchant fleet was not flagged to the Red Ensign as a tax dodge. Are my noble friend and Her Majesty's Government totally happy that our troops will be carried into a theatre of war by companies trying to avoid taxation in this country?

Lord Bach: My Lords, as a Defence Minister I am not normally asked questions about tax dodges. I am as confident as I possibly can be so far as concerns the noble Lord's question.

Lord Elton: My Lords, the reciprocal part of the last question is: is the Minister satisfied with the way in which the British flagged fleet has diminished over the past 15 years, and are the Government going to do something to reverse the position?

Lord Bach: My Lords, that is a very wide question. But I am delighted to say—as I am answering for the Government, as he would remind me if I failed to answer—that there has been a steady increase in United Kingdom registered shipping: around 50 per cent over the past two years. That figure contrasts well with that for the preceding period.


2.44 p.m.

Lord Sheldon asked Her Majesty's Government:>

    In view of the speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the Social Market Foundation on 3rd February, what are those areas where they consider markets cannot deliver the long-term returns required.

3 Mar 2003 : Column 598

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Government's central objective is to create a more prosperous Britain, with opportunity and security for all. In many areas, private firms operating in well-functioning markets can help to achieve this objective, by efficiently providing high-quality goods and services to consumers. But for certain key public services, such as healthcare, schools and national defence, a range of market failures can make public provision a more efficient and equitable means of delivery.

Lord Sheldon: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. The speech was a remarkable personal comment on those areas of public policy where markets are not appropriate and where public action is required. I know that my noble friend will have read this most important speech. Will he comment on the implications of the speech in the light of the current debate on the future of the National Health Service?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I agree about the importance of the speech. I rather think that it will be referred to in economics textbooks and in studies of public policy for many years to come. As to the National Health Service, the Chancellor spent a considerable part of the speech describing the particular characteristics of the National Health Service which make public provision necessary: for example, the difficulty of specifying contracts, the fact that there are local monopolies in various specialisms in health, and in particular that there is very poor—too poor—consumer information. But at the same time, it is government policy to devolve responsibility for healthcare matters to the front-line organisations.

Lord Saatchi: My Lords, is not one of the most attractive aspects of the party opposite its belief in universal provision free at the point of use? Is it not a sad end of that romantic dream that now the Government intend to charge people for public services as well as taxing them? Does the Minister appreciate the scale of public disquiet about what that means—as in these findings: 37 per cent of people think that most people will end up paying for private schools; 56 per cent think the same about private healthcare; 59 per cent say that about private welfare insurance; and 66 per cent say that most people will end up paying for private pensions?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page