Committee of Public Accounts Press Notice

PAC Press Notice, 44th PAC Report 2008-09

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency's response to growth in the UK merchant fleet

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"The UK-flagged merchant fleet sharply increased in size between 2000 and 2007: the number of vessels increased by over a half and tonnage trebled. Even in the current tough economic climate, the fleet grew by a further four per cent in 2008. In the face of this good news, it is all the more disappointing that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has been reactive and resistant to change.

"The Agency, which regulates and monitors the safety of UK-flagged vessels, managed to cope with the increase in the size of the fleet by using its existing marine surveyors more intensively and delegating more of its work to the ship classification societies. But this make do and mend approach to its resources is under strain given the number of vacancies for surveyors and its ageing surveyor workforce.

"Back in 2002 we warned the Agency that it needed to recruit and retain more marine surveyors. It still lacks a proper strategy for doing this. The Agency argues that it is not facing a staffing crisis and that it can cope with its current programme of ship surveys and inspections. We would like the Agency to back up its confidence about its own capacity with evidence which can be exposed to NAO scrutiny.

"The Agency is also demonstrating a lack of commitment to its target of increasing the size of the UK fleet by seven per cent a year, even though reputable ship owners are continuing to signal their intention to fly our Red Ensign. The Agency laudably wants to maintain the quality of the UK-flagged fleet but that is quite compatible with developing a clear marketing strategy to attract quality vessels in the face of competition from other flag states."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 44th Report of this Session, which examines the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's handling of growth in the UK registered fleet and its work to maintain and improve the quality of the UK flagged vessels.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (the Agency) of the Department for Transport is responsible for regulating and monitoring the safety of the United Kingdom's merchant shipping fleet, and for maintaining registers of UK vessels and the officers eligible to serve on them. The Agency also promotes the benefits of operating under the UK flag to the international shipping industry.

Until the late 1990s, the UK merchant fleet was in long term decline. After the introduction of tonnage tax in 2000, the UK merchant trading fleet grew by over 50% from 417 vessels to 646 in 2007. The growth continued in 2008, and ship owners have indicated their intention to bring more ships under the UK flag. It is therefore disappointing that the Agency is not sticking to its 2007 target to increase the fleet by 7% each year, particularly when other States have clear strategies to encourage greater use of their fleets.

As the Agency's workload has increased it has coped by being flexible and adaptable, and by delegating more survey work to classification societies. It is confident that it has the resources to continue to police the fleet adequately in the future. But it has a significant number of surveyor vacancies and an ageing surveyor workforce.

In 2002, we warned the Agency about these issues. We are, therefore, very concerned that it has shown no evidence of a robust and proactive strategy to recruit and retain the staff that it needs. It claims that it can cope with its current programme of surveys and inspections, but the evidence is confusing, with some targets missed and others exceeded.

The UK continues to have a high standing internationally for quality but the Agency must guard against complacency. Other States are improving the quality of their fleets and inspections by other States of UK flagged vessels visiting their ports are revealing more shortcomings compared to international standards.

Notes for Editors

1. Members of the Committee are available for interview - please contact the Media Officer on the number provided below.

2. The full text of the Committee's Conclusions and Recommendations is attached to this press notice.

3. This report can be accessed via the internet from around 11.00 am on the day of publication.

All media enquiries to:

Alex Paterson
Select Committee Media Officer
Tel: 020 7219 1589