Parliament and Politics: Merchant fleet decline 'not critical'

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Indy Politics
BRITAIN'S SECURITY interests are being compromised by the Government's refusal to halt the decline of the merchant fleet, Labour maintained yesterday, writes Stephen Goodwin.

The statement follows a Ministry of Defence review which concluded that there was no need for special measures to boost the shipping industry.

The number of UK-registered merchant vessels big enough to be of use in times of war - those of over 500 gross registered tonnes - has fallen from 1,614 in 1975 to 321 at the end of 1991.

But replying to one of a series of short debates which kept the Commons sitting through Thursday night, Jonathan Aitken, Minister of State for Defence Procurement, said though the decline was 'regrettable' there were good grounds for believing that chartering or requestioning British ships could meet the expected requirements of a crisis or wartime.

'We do not believe that the situation is so critical that we could not manage to carry out the type of crisis resupply and reinforcement task that faced us at the time of the recent Gulf war or at the time of the Falklands invasion - tight and more difficult though that task might be.'

Mr Aitken, however, told MPs more might need to be done about crewing to ensure an adequate supply of British seafarers.

John Reid, a Labour defence spokesman, accused the Government of trying to evade Parliamentary scrutiny by announcing the results of the review late in the evening at the tail end of the session. The 'empty review' showed the Government intended to do absolutely nothing to halt the potentially disastrous decline of the merchant fleet, he said.

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