Britannia's merchant navy once ruled the waves, the "red ensign" as common a sight on the world's seas as our seafarers were in its ports. Today, the UK-registered fleet has shrunk to a tiny remnant of what it was - UK-owned and UK-registered ships fell from more than 1,600 in 1975 to 253 in 1995 - while British crews are in danger of extinction. In this most globalised of industries, they are victims of commercial pressures that have compelled shipping companies to register in countries where regulations are laxer, and substitute overseas labour for more expensive British workers.
Enter the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, a former ship's steward and the man most responsible (when his portfolio included transport) for persuading the Treasury to introduce tonnage tax in 2000 in the hope of stopping the rot. By giving shipowners who register in the UK the option of being taxed on fleet tonnage, rather than profits, it has led to a 250 per cent growth in the tonnage of the UK-flagged fleet and a doubling of the UK-owned fleet. But the point of Prescott's tax was to create jobs for British seafarers. The unions say that hasn't happened.
Tonnage tax obliges shipowners to train five officer cadets a year, and according to the Chamber of Shipping, has prompted almost a 40 per cent growth in cadet recruitment. Yet Numast, the naval officers' union, says that the actual numbers in training are still falling. For ratings grades, says the RMT, the ratings' union, there is "virtually no obligation" on ship-owners. The number of British ratings has declined from 30,000 in 1980 to fewer than 10,000 in 2003. According to the union, only 50 a year are being trained - not enough to replenish even the current low numbers in employment.
The effect of the tonnage tax, according to a motion signed by 160 MPs, is to give the shipping industry "millions of pounds of public subsidy". But the industry is not doing enough in return and the motion, tabled by Gwyn Prosser, the Labour MP for Dover, urges "a firm link" between tonnage tax and numbers of ratings and officers employed. The Chamber of Shipping counters that any formal link would force companies to quit the UK and have "the opposite of its intended effect".
To the fury of Bob Crow, RMT general secretary, Prescott (whom the union once sponsored) has tried to blame the unions for the failure to increase jobs and training. Prescott recently told MPs that he was disappointed the union "did not take up the training arrangements for all British crew members aboard the ships". Crow describes that as "sheer nonsense".