This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.
Date Published: 20 March 2023
The maritime sector contributes nearly £40 billion to the UK economy and employs 185,000 people. Commercial shipping is a significant contributor to the global supply chain, with 95 per cent of goods moved by sea. Compared to other countries, the UK maritime sector is used to being self-reliant, resilient and entrepreneurial. There are things, however, that the Government can and should do and we want the sector to be ambitious for those. We welcome the introduction in 2019 of the Government’s first, and arguably long overdue, long-term strategy for the maritime sector, Maritime 2050. It demonstrated a long-term commitment to and recognition of the sector’s overall importance to the UK economy.
The Government does, however, need to distinguish more clearly between specific actions and aspirations in the Strategy’s many recommendations, and to set out key performance indicators and targets. This would make it possible for the Department for Transport to track where progress has or has not been made in the years since the Strategy’s publication.
Throughout our inquiry, the maritime sector’s considerable achievement of maintaining resilient supply chains throughout the covid-19 pandemic was recognised by all parts of the sector and the Government. Other global events have recently demonstrated the range of potential threats to supply chains, and shown that the sector needs a permanent resilience plan, not just a singular response to the pandemic. The Government should bring forward the publication of the updated Trade Route Map as soon as possible, focussing on how it will assist the industry to maintain long-term resilience in supply chains.
The Government has recognised that to maintain its status, serious efforts must be made to grow the UK Ship Register. Establishing the UK Shipping Concierge Service and simplification of tonnage tax are positive steps, but adoption of a concrete target for growth of the Register would help to concentrate minds. We support other steps taken to support the industry’s competitive advantage such as the establishment of Regional Clusters, which have improved collaboration and communication.
Tackling emissions is the industry’s biggest challenge. The Government’s vision is for the UK to be a world leader in zero emission shipping, and it sees decarbonisation as an opportunity to revitalise ports and coastal communities, but there is a need for greater clarity about how this will be achieved. The UK must have a defined plan for decarbonising the maritime sector with clear, measurable targets for both home and abroad. The 2019 Clean Maritime Plan was a good starting point, but a more focused plan is now necessary to give the industry certainty about the part it will play, the fuels and vessel types that will be supported, and the regulatory environment that will be in place to achieve net zero by 2050. This must include funding commercialisation of decarbonisation technologies, and practical action for realising widespread adoption of shore power.
There is a fine balance that needs to be struck when it comes to regulating for smart shipping and autonomous vessels. Innovation needs to be able to flourish whilst safety standards are maintained and that there is a measure of certainty to guide investment. There is a major commercial opportunity for UK innovators, who have been at the forefront of developing marine and maritime autonomy to date. It is important this momentum is not lost. The Department for Transport should publish the outcome of its consultation on this subject as soon as possible, bring forward the necessary legislation at the earliest opportunity, and establish the promised Centre for Smart Shipping. The Government must also address the “scaling-up gap”, whereby new innovations are developed with the help of research and development or seed funding, but the leap to widespread use and commercialisation of those innovations is much more difficult.
Industry believes that this is the area of Maritime 2050 in which the least progress has been made, exemplified by the lack of action resulting from the Department’s 2018 Port Connectivity Study. We urge the Government to bring forward its planned call for evidence on planning and delivering infrastructure for the freight and logistics sector and use this, in combination with the 2018 study, to develop concrete priorities and plans. The Minister for Maritime must also work with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to improve the service provided to ports by the Marine Maritime Organisation.
Coastal shipping and inland waterways were overlooked within Maritime 2050; this is a missed opportunity. The Department for Transport should undertake its promised research into the potential of coastal shipping and inland waterways, and review the funding streams that support modal shift to ensure they are suitable for the maritime sector, which operates on long timescales and requires support for capital costs.
There has been a downward trend in UK seafarer numbers over the past 15 years. The workforce is ageing and diversity in the sector is poor, with women making up only three per cent of the workforce. It also faces a visibility challenge, with the wide variety of careers available in the sector not well known.
P&O Ferries’ treatment of workers in March 2022 has not only affected the hundreds of seafarers who lost their jobs, but also damaged the wider perception of the maritime sector. It is imperative that the Government ensures that both current seafarers and potential new recruits know they are valued and are not deemed expendable.
The Government’s response to the P&O Ferries incident, a “nine-point plan”, included the Seafarers’ Wages Bill. We consider this a welcome and necessary step but it will not be sufficient to ensure proper treatment of seafarers. The aims of this Bill need to be supported by the promised welfare charter, which we urge the Government to bring forward as soon as possible, and to make mandatory. It needs to include concrete action to hold employers to high standards and support better mental health among seafarers.
The Maritime 2050 strategy does not solely apply to the Department for Transport, and we have heard consistently about the need for government departments to collaborate. We agree with the Department’s own assessment in a 2015 study that a cross-Whitehall team and a Ministerial Working Group would provide helpful focus to support the industry.
If ports are to be effective and competitive, it is important that the government department and agencies they work with understand their role and expertise. The Department for Transport needs to take leadership of clarifying across Government the role of harbour authorities, which should not be used as the Government’s ‘Swiss Army knife’ to undertake an ever-greater variety of tasks without appropriate resourcing and expertise.