Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. This afternoon the Committee is considering the Comptroller and Auditor General's Report on the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's ship surveys and inspections regime. We have before us Maurice Storey, Chief Executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Welcome, Mr Storey. I will go straight into evidence and I will start with paragraphs 7 to 10. I will try and give you a guide as to which paragraphs I am talking about in the Report. Generally speaking the Report indicates that the Agency does a good job in promoting and enforcing high standards of marine safety but those paragraphs say the Agency could make a greater contribution by focusing more of its work where there is greatest risk. How are you going to do that?

  (Mr Storey) Basically we are following the proposal in the NAO Report on their method of doing risk analysis. That is in force for the current business plan for 2001-02. I shall leave copy of that business plan with you at the end of meeting, if I may.

  2. That would be helpful. Just to elaborate that slightly, are you going to in that assess the level of risk for individual vessels? A quarter of your vessels appear to be very low risk indeed.
  (Mr Storey) Yes, we will use that risk assessment to look at the vessel inspections we carry out and of course the risk assessments for foreign vessels coming into the United Kingdom will be carried out in accordance with the Paris MOU/Port State Control MOU telling us which vessels should be targeted because of their previous record.

  3. Thank you. The next question is perhaps not so kindly. Paragraph 9 points out that the number of unannounced inspections of Class V passenger vessels has declined significantly over recent years. Only 39 per cent received an inspection in 1999-00. How many and what type of inspections of these vessels will be carried out in future?
  (Mr Storey) In the next financial year we will be carrying out 100 per cent of unannounced inspections on these vessels.

  4. Good. The next question relates to paragraph 15. The Agency depends on information to ensure that its surveyors visit the right vessels for the surveys and inspections and look at the right things on those vessels. However, that paragraph shows that the Agency's computer systems are inadequate for that task and for its surveyors' needs. What steps are you taking to improve your computer systems as quickly as possible?
  (Mr Storey) We have just set up a team to look at the whole of our work and we have an agency management project on the team and they will be look at the future as to what information we require as far as the systems are concerned. As far as hardware is concerned we have just completed fitting in simple terms a ring main around the UK to connect all our offices to our headquarters in Southampton. Each local office and area will have an area network which will link into a main network and then we can have a central database and the team managers are preparing for that central database.

  5. But do you have a timetable for your new software or new information?
  (Mr Storey) The last of the hardware will be installed in the next week or so. The software is a long project and I think it will be at least another year or two years before we have got the thing to the standard we would like.

  6. Two years? The others may want to come in on that later. Let me move on to figure 23. Virtually all shipping accidents involve an element of human error and the human factor was present in all of the cases the Agency prosecuted in 1999-00 as shown in figure 23. Lord Justice Clarke's recent report on the formal investigation of the MARCHIONESS disaster underlines the importance of ensuring against human failure. What are you doing to focus more attention on human aspects of ship safety?
  (Mr Storey) Of course the international regulations are the International Safety Management code. That has been in play for a certain number of ships in the world since 1998, although some people volunteered to do it in 1996, and it comes into the rest of the fleet in 2002. That is normal merchant ships.

  7. That has a tonnage limit?
  (Mr Storey) There is no tonnage limit. It is all the large merchant shipping side.

  8. Not for smaller ships?
  (Mr Storey) No. The work in inspection covers a safety management code that must be laid down by the individual ship owner and then the ship owner will see that that work is carried out on the ships themselves. There are two checks on this and the human element very much comes into this as far as the qualifications of the officers are concerned and in the way the officers carry out their respective jobs on board ship and they are supported by the management structure. On the small ships, which are the Class Vs, like the Thames vessels, we are introducing a management code for those vessels this year and it will be slightly watered down to the big ship style but will cover the main issues on board the vessels. The reason we will not be being so hard on the individual ship owner as the big ships is because sometimes they are one-man owned vessels so by doing it on the ship that take in the owner/operator as well.

  9. How will you police that?
  (Mr Storey) That will be policed by our own individual surveyors doing the unannounced inspections and during the annual surveys of vessels.

  10. Thank you. I move on to paragraph 4.7 which points out that only four of the 58 cases investigated for possible prosecution in 1999-00 came directly from the Agency's inspections of vessels and paragraph 4.9 tells us that it was clear this is partly due to the lack of confidence and experience on the part of some surveyors. What will you be doing to ensure that surveyors report all significant breaches they encounter so that prosecution can be considered?
  (Mr Storey) Basically we have changed our total approach as far as training our surveyors to a competency based framework. This will be within that competency framework so that surveyors, where it is considered necessary, will be trained in the enforcement procedures.

  11. So should we expect to see a larger number of prosecutions from inspections in future years?
  (Mr Storey) If it is necessary to prosecute we will prosecute.

  12. The Agency relies on the masters or operators of UK vessels to notify it in writing that deficiencies have been put right. Paragraph 4.19 points out that there was no evidence that corrective action had been taken in the cases of 17 out of the 29 UK vessels examined by the NAO, and that the Agency cannot assess the extent to which deficiencies are rectified on time. What are you going to do about that?
  (Mr Storey) Again we will make sure in future that our surveyors do ensure that vessels are either re-visited, if it is a serious offence, or we do get written confirmation and that will be confirmed every quarter.

  13. You currently do not have a system to do that?
  (Mr Storey) We do not have a system to do that currently.

  14. Sea fishing remains one of the United Kingdom's most dangerous occupations. I see from paragraph 3.18 that steps have been taken to improve matters. Have the Department and the Agency done all they can to improve fishing vessel safety?
  (Mr Storey) In the last two years we have done an awful lot of work. The first issue was to get check whether the industry was getting the information promulgated by ourselves on safety and it was obvious that this was not the case. We carried out a tracking study with an outside body to look at how that information was being received by the industry. We found that we were not necessarily getting it across in the right direction. We have changed the mode in which we do this. We now publish on a regular basis a safety information document or article in Fishing News. That is the most read paper by the fishing industry. As far as the rest of fishing safety is concerned, the fishing vessel rules were written in 1975 and they are now due for an overhaul. There were no rules in place for vessels below 12 metres. We are from 1st April this year introducing an under 12 metre safety code which involves self-certification, risk analysis and inspection of the boats themselves. We are during this next business year going to overhaul the fishing vessel rules for the 12 to 24 metre sector and really going over all the rules themselves to bring them up-to-date.

  15. That is very interesting. Would you not agree given the level of risk in this particular industry that vessels are under-inspected as it is now?
  (Mr Storey) The vessels probably are under-inspected because of the risk. It is the worst industry in the United Kingdom for risk. We do not get to see as many as we would like but we have tried to step this level up, certainly in the under 12 metre sector which was having a lot of the problems. Of course they are the largest number of vessels in the UK fleet with round about 6,000 vessels. With the training of our Coastguard sector managers (which we completed in the last financial year) we will carry out a lot more inspections during the next 12 months.

  16. Unlike your follow up we might be asking to check whether you do that in the next 12 months. However, I will push on to one more question before I widen it out. Paragraph 2.50 was quite interesting to me. It is Agency policy for surveyors to ask the owners of vessels to arrange and pay for their travel and accommodation when surveying vessels overseas. This Committee highlighted the risks of this when in a particular tax inspector's case this led to corruption, frankly. This seems to be an open door for corruption. What are you doing about that? In the first place were you not aware of the Allcock case?
  (Mr Storey) Yes, I was aware of it, and the procedure is that shipping companies that trade internationally have deals with particular airlines for moving their crews around the world where they get major discounts. Because they have to pay off the deals they arrange the airfare on the back of the deal that they have which gives an air fare with a large discount. As far as the hotel accommodation is concerned in most cases we normally get the accommodation pre-booked by the shipping company on their terms and discounts but we pay for the hotel bill ourselves. We just get the benefit of any discount that the shipping company may have with a particular hotel or airline.

  17. That is a very elegant explanation but I do not find it very persuasive. Do you not see this as an opening for bad practice?
  (Mr Storey) I do not think so and if I were to charge the shipping company the full fare for air tickets, particularly when you are going to the Far East and places like that, I think they would complain that I am not giving best value to the customer by giving them the benefit of saving their costs.

  18. Treasury, what is your view on this? Can you give me an indication? Did you alert departments after the Allcock case about the problems of this approach?
  (Mr Glicksman) I am afraid I would have to check on that. I do not know[1].

  Chairman: I would be very grateful if you would because it does seem to me to be bad practice, frankly. Mr Gerry Steinberg?

Mr Steinberg

  19. Page 2, paragraph 7, clearly here it says that the Agency does not distinguish the riskiest types of vessels. Is that right?
  (Mr Storey) The Agency does distinguish the riskiest type of vessels. For foreign vessels calling at the United Kingdom the Paris Memorandum of Understanding on Port State Control has on its database information that you go into to look at the vessels that do carry risk. When this Report was done the system previously adopted was a points system and of course the more points against the vessel the worse the vessel was. In the late summer of last year Paris MOU changed their policy and they allocated a risk-based method of looking at vessels and they put risk factors on the vessels. For example, if you selected a good quality vessel, you now only get 0.8 of an inspection accredited to you and if you pick a bad vessel you get up to 1.8 accredited. Of course it has changed the format in a way that we—


1   Note: See Evidence, Appendix 2, page 30 (PAC 140). Back

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